About the Aurora
Mystery and wonder shroud the northern lights, otherwise known as the aurora borealis. Mesmerizing, stunning, other-worldly are just a few words used to describe the experience of watching this spectacular phenomenon. When conditions are favourable this fantastical display lights up the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions, leaving all who catch a glimpse of this magical wonder, memories that will last forever.
Displays vary in intensity and duration, shape and form having no regulation, with each display totally unique. This natural phenomenon is hard to predict, yet extraordinary to witness!
The strong green lights danced across the sky, rapidly changing in shape and colour. We were all totally engrossed in this magical experience and when the lights finally came to an abrupt end, we just stood there completely speechless...
Ms Turner, Abisko Sky Station
Things you should know about the Northern Lights
Where can I see the northern lights?
The northern lights regularly occur within an area known as the auroral oval in Arctic and sub-Arctic. Parts of Iceland, Sweden, Finland and Norway all fall within this aurora zone and are easily accessible from the UK. Travelling further afield, Canada and Alaska also offer good opportunities for viewing the aurora and can be combined with tailor made travel. See our northern lights holidays »
The aurora is a natural phenomenon so there are no guarantees. As such location should be a major consideration when selecting a northern lights holiday. Don't be lured by cheap offers of weekend breaks in Reykjavik, which include a short excursion to 'see the lights'. You need to be outside of built-up areas and light pollution, not just for a few hours, but the for the duration of your holiday. Many of the hotels we use offer a wake-up service if the lights make an appearance during the night, and the more remote you are the more spectacular the show will be!
What are the northern lights?
These magnetic fields create auroral ovals around the top and bottom of our planet which move and distort as the earth rotates and solar flare activity increases. You have to be within an auroral oval for a chance of seeing this particle/gas reaction hence why you need to travel north.
Why are displays different colours?
The differences depend on two main factors: what type of gas is reacting with the solar particles and at what altitude this activity is taking place. Most of it occurs 100-200km above the Earth – a level where 'excited' nitrogen atoms glow green and blue. And above 200km, oxygen atoms glow red when reacting with charged particles from the Sun.
Will I definitely see them?
Patience is the key as well as a clear, cloudless winter’s night. It is important to be away from any sources of artificial light, such as street lighting. Displays can occur any time from around 5pm but most activity tends to be after 11pm - fortunately on many of our holidays you can opt to be woken during the night so you don’t miss a thing! Sightings not only vary in intensity but in duration too, from just minutes to sometimes hours.
The cycle is generally around 11 years and the latest report from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), said the continued surge in solar activity should result in an extension of the peak or 'Solar Max' period into 2015.
Viewing the northern lights
The phases of the moon don't affect aurora activity, but the moonlight can reduce the intensity of the displays. It is often mentioned that full moon should be avoided due to higher light concentration, however it is one of the most magical experiences to see the full moon together with the northern lights dancing across the sky. During a new moon the sky is slightly darker, but it is very much a matter of personal opinion, which of these sightings is the best.
Myths and Legends
- The name 'aurora borealis' is credited to Galileo and means 'northern dawn'.
- Some Northern American Inuit call the aurora 'aqsarniit' (literally 'football players') because they believe that the lights are ancestral spirits kicking around the head of a walrus.
- The old Norse explanation was that the strange, shimmering green lights were old maids dancing in the heavens.
- Vikings believed the glowing lights were reflections from the shields of the Valkyries, maidens who transported fallen warriors to Valhalla.
- Scandinavian fisherman called the sightings Herring Flash as they saw them as a sign of rich catches, believing them to be caused by light reflecting off vast shoals of lively herring.
- Modern day myths exist too - the Japanese believe that babies conceived under the northern lights will become intellectuals.