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Facts and fiction about the northern lights

Many are fascinated by the aurora borealis, but few know the science and myths related to the natural light show in the sky.

When you get the aurora borealis explained by advanced physicists who specialise in the field of magnetohydrodynamics, it can be hard to see the link to the lights that dance spontaneously and like crazy above your head.

But the phenomenon can also be explained in a tangible way: We have the sun to thank for everything, also the auroras, and during large solar explosions and flares, huge quantities of particles are thrown out from the sun and into deep space.

The maths of the northern lights

Here’s where it gets really interesting: When the particles meet the Earth’s magnetic shield, they are led towards an oval around the magnetic North Pole where they interact with the upper parts of the atmosphere. The energy which is then released is sent to us as northern lights.

It adds to the magic to know that this performance happens approximately 100 kilometres above our heads. Its immense power is the reason why we can see it so clearly, as it’s helped by a myriad of atoms and molecules.

But never take the northern lights for granted. It’s as much a natural phenomenon as the weather. Its appearance and intensity are controlled by the sun’s activity and its location depends on the earth’s magnetic field.

The northern light appears in a belt, or an oval, which is situated above the Earth in a regular position in relation to the sun.

Explaining the northern lights

Interested in learning more about aurora’s origin? This video will explain the fascinating details of the northern lights.

Aurora borealis is far from a new phenomenon. The spectacle of the northern lights is described by early storytellers and has given rise to many legends. Symbols linked to the northern lights are for instance found on the Sami shamanistic drum. The phenomenon has several different names in Sami, amongst them “Guovssahas” which means “the light which can be heard”. It’s poetry in motion.

During the Viking Age, the northern lights were said to be the armour of the Valkyrie warrior virgins, that shed a strange flickering light. Today, locals are often respectfully referring to the northern lights as “the green lady”. Just check the colours in the numerous photos and films of the lights posted on social media. You might see many more nuances in real life, though.

When and where? There’s no exact answer, but …

Northern Norway definitely offers the best and most consistent opportunities to see the northern lights, as this part of the country lies below the auroral oval. One place in this area is often as good as another ­– you can observe the same northern lights in Lofoten as in Tromsø 500 kilometres further north, just from a different angle.

However, the aurora shows up in other parts of the country as well from time to time, including areas such as Trøndelag and the southern parts of Norway, particularly during periods of increased solar activity.

It’s important to remember that aurora can be a bit of a diva, and she will only start the show when she feels the time is right. Patience is a virtue, also when chasing the northern lights. But to maximize your chances of a sighting, know that the lights are at their most frequent in late autumn and winter/early spring (from September to late March), during the hours from 6 pm to 1 am.

Lights, camera … action!

When the light show brightens up the sky, the moment is definitely worth freezing. Photographer Christian Hoiberg has loads of experience with eternalising aurora’s fleeting beauty in images.

Winter wear in Northern Norway

Many say they feel less cold in Northern Norway than what they had anticipated upon arrival. With fireplaces heating up cabins and lavvos, the temperature inside is often around 25 degrees Celcius. But if you want to enjoy outdoor activities without freezing or sweating, you need to be prepared.

Wool is cool
Norwegians are addicted to wool clothing – they love garments made of the ingenious heat-regulating sheep wool. A thin basic layer of a wool shirt and longies is a good start. Alternatively, you can wear appropriate clothing made of synthetic fibres that transport the sweat outwards. Avoid cotton, as it tends to get cold and uncomfortable when you sweat.

Layer upon layer
If you dress in layers, it is easy to remove or add clothing if you get too hot or cold. Put on a layer of fleece or wool over the basic layer. Still cold? Add a thicker sweater (wool is still cool), a scarf and woollen socks. The outermost layer should be wind and waterproof: lined trousers, a warm thermal jacket, a warm hat that covers the ears, gloves, and proper winter shoes. Avoid tight shoes as they can make your toes cold.

On thin ice
The coastal climate is usually relatively mild, but the rain can freeze and make the roads slippery. Your shoes should have rubber soles as this is less slippery than plastic. In the steepest hills, you should use crampons, which you can buy in most sports shops.

When you’re active
For fast-paced activities like snowmobiling, you need even more clothes. On organized snowmobile tours, you will be provided with a thermal suit and suitable boots, gloves, and headgear.

Insider tips
In Northern Norway, we always remove several layers of clothing when we go inside to avoid getting cold when we go back outside. It is also good to know that you are expected to take off your shoes before entering Norwegian homes as it is considered very impolite to walk around indoors with outdoor shoes on.

Source: NordNorsk Reiseliv

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