What makes the Northern Lights a must-see natural fascination?
The celestial flares that often light up the cold winter polar nights have enthralled night-gazers and enthusiasts all over the world, to the extent that they feature prominently on their bucket list of things to see in the frozen north. And why not! It is an intriguing natural phenomenon like no other, when the skies adorn vivid and spectacular colour unseen elsewhere, apart from polar-proximity regions. It is almost as if the heavens nonchalantly unscroll cryptic messages that we have yet to decipher.
The aura of the auroras has failed to dim or diminish even after thousands of years and the ethereal glow keeps northern lights hunters and sky-gazers enchanted, mesmerised and spell-bound.
Of course, the energised euphoria of venturing on a northern lights tour is unexplainable, even by experienced guides, including myself, when each time the sky cloaks itself in amazing hues of velvety green and occasionally red, yellow, blue and white.
Where can we see them?
To experience the wonders of the enigmatic auroras, it is essential that you are as close to the poles as possible. Aurora borealis, often simply referred to as the northern lights, polar lights or Arctic lights, are natural occurrences seen towards the poles in the northern hemisphere. The lights can also be seen in the southern hemisphere and are known there as aurora australis. While the northern lights are predominantly seen in regions including northern Canada, Alaska and Nordic nations such as Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland, they can also be seen in parts of Siberian Russia, China and Japan. Down south, they can be seen in parts of New Zealand, Australia, a few scattered islands in the Pacific Ocean, and Antarctica.
New wine in an old bottle
The ‘heavenly’ glow is not a new phenomenon and has been witnessed for centuries by cavemen and kings alike. Since the beginning of time, the dazzling polar lights, be it aurora borealis or aurora australis, have left a glowing trail of awe, inspiration and disbelief. Early humans, too, have left inscriptions and paintings on cave walls, which many believe depicts the marvellous lights from about 30,000 years ago. It is said the official astronomers of King Nebuchadnezzar II recorded a strange red glow in the skies on the night of 12/13 March 567 BCE. So when tourists go gaga over the nocturnal spectacle around the poles, we should realise that the novelty is merely self-sown and has been witnessed in bygone eras by those who were left enchanted, bemused and awe-inspired by its mere sight.
What’s in a name?
The term ‘aurora’ is derived from the Latin word for dawn and also refers to the Goddess of Dawn in Roman mythology. It was earlier believed that the lights could only be seen during a particular part of the morning, but research reveals that auroras occur during any period of the day or night and all we need is partly dark skies and charged electrons.
Many believe that the term aurora borealis was coined by the famous Italian astronomer and physicist Galilei Galileo, who is often referred to as the father of astronomy. Others give credit to Frenchman Pierre Gissendi, who was also his friend. Of course, many also credit both for giving this name.
Aurora - cause & consequence
To define the causes of auroras in simple terms, without the jaunt of scientific jargon, we are justified in saying the northern lights occur when charged particles from the Sun are catapulted at mind-boggling speeds by the solar winds and magnetospheric plasma towards the Earth in the form of protons and electrons, which react with gases like oxygen and hydrogen around the magnetic poles on entering our atmosphere, causing the spectacle that tourists travel thousands of miles to witness. Of course, most will recollect the magnet and pins experiment in school, where the teacher threw pins at a magnet and we noticed how the pins chose to ‘hang out’ towards the ends of the magnet. Similar is the case with our Earth which is magnetically charged towards the poles and thus attracts charged electrons.
Colours & chromaticity
An eager sky gazer will often peer uneasily towards a dark sky, wondering what colours will be seen on the tour. Well, the answer may not be as simple as the question, as various factors come into play here. Icelanders, who have grown up watching the celestial lights will often talk about the colours seen during their lifetime, which range from the predominant hues of green to yellow, blue and violet and even red, magenta, carmine, scarlet, pink, orange and white. Of course, do not expect to see the lights as vibrant and vivid as they appear on the internet or the Instagram posts. All those pictures are taken on high definition equipment and one should accept the fact that our eyes have limitations and while we are routinely enthralled by the dancing lights that appear in various fascinating formations, the sharp emerald green hues may well elude you. There are also the ultra-violet and infra-red light radiation which cannot be seen with the naked eye and need special gadgets.
Again, the colours depend on their amalgamation with various gases and elements. The colour red appears at the highest altitude when excited atoms of oxygen emits at a wavelength of 630 nanometres, while at lower altitudes the most frequent collisions suppress red mode and is dominated by 557.7 emissions that is green in colour. High concentration of atomic oxygen and higher sensitivity in green makes green auroras the most common colour. Blue and its hues are seen at lower altitudes where molecular nitrogen produces visible light emission.
Best period to gaze above
The best period to watch the lights is from September to mid-April, during cold and dark nights after the equinox. Most tourists are also curious about the best time to witness the aerial display and guides will often say the best time to watch the lights is generally from 10 pm to 2 am. Of course, any part of the night may be suitable for watching the lights, as long as the charged electrons continue to do their thing. Most auroras occur in the band known as the ‘auroral zone’ which is typically 3to 6 degrees wide in the latitude between 10 to 20 degrees from the geometric poles at all local times or longitudes. The light produced by most auroras is between 90 km to 150 km above the ground and sometimes can extend to about 1000 km.
Myths, superstitions & legends
The aura of the northern lights is not without its cultural interpretations, regional beliefs and social superstitions, with different countries and region interpreting the auroras in their own way. The Vikings of Iceland looked at the aurora borealis as a manifestation of their gods and would often bow in reverence when the lights were sighted. Old-timers believed pregnant women should not venture outside when the northern lights occur, as children born would be cross-eyed. In Greenland, it is believed that northern lights are souls of infants and children who have passed away early, while in Norway, the lights are believed to be souls of departed maids. In Finland, people say the lights occur when a large fiery fox runs across the skies and when its large bushy tail brushes against the mountains it sprinkles snow all over and this causes the northern lights. The Swedes, specially fishermen, are of the opinion that northern lights occur due to the reflection of large shoals of herring in the northern seas. During the medieval period, the occurrence of an auroral display, especially the colour red, was seen as the harbinger of doom and many believed that it brought bad luck, even death, destruction, famines and war. This belief was also fortified due to the witnessing of red lights in part of Europe, England and Scotland weeks before the French Revolution. Italians too believe that the celestial lights when red bring bad luck and are a bad omen.
The Maoris of New Zealand and also certain civilisations in Europe and North America believe that the auroras were reflections of torches and campfires lit far away. While the Inuits of Alaska thought the auroras were the spirits of animals they hunted. The Menominee Indians of Wisconsin believed that the lights indicated the location of giants, Manabaiwok, that were the spirits of great hunters and fishermen. Of course, some tribes of North America also believed that the aurora was a narrow torch-lit pathway to guide departed souls to heaven. Some Japanese and Chinese believe that the heavenly flares bring good luck and couples who witnessed the lights would have extremely good looking children. The Chinese also believed that the celestial lights were a result of a battle royale between the good dragon and the bad dragon in the sky. According to yet another superstition among North American Indians waving, whistling or singing while watching the northern lights alerted the spirits of the lights that would descend and whisk you away.
Planning & preparation
Planning a northern lights tour can be a draining experience, knowing the time, energy and money spent in hunting the elusive auroras. Many travels from one end of the globe to another, just to have a glimpse of the ‘cold fires’ in the sky at least once in their lifetime, and thus knowing how to do it right becomes all the more pertinent. A plausible way is to be well-informed and has a flexible itinerary, as there may be a series of bad days where the weather plays truant and spoils your viewing experience. Other important aspects of the tour are the right clothes (Icelanders will stress on layers), boots, gloves, stoles etc, which can brave cold, snow, rain, besides gusty howling winds. It would be advisable not to travel with very young children, as the experience may sometimes be unnerving. And one should not forget the camera, as these ‘illuminated’ memories may sometimes last a lifetime and often pictures speak louder than words.
How to choose a tour
If you come to Iceland, there are multiple options and umpteen tour operators who are keen to be the catalyst to your northern lights experience. But it is always prudent to countercheck what each offers, as there some operators keen to go that extra mile by providing discounts, group benefits, brochures, audio-guides and other freebees, while renting out jackets and boots and showcasing guides with the gift of gab and knowledge of best viewing spots, as there are quite a few around. Obviously I won’t reveal the venue details, lest I am accused of compromising on business ethics. But alas, none can ever completely guarantee your aurora show since they too rely on the benevolence at the mercy of Mother Nature. Of course, there is no denying the experience, analysis and knowledge on weather conditions improves the chances.
An unforgettable experience
The tour itself is filled with wonderful experiences, as the guides will regale you with details and amusing anecdotes, ensuring to keep you in a good mood and fill you with information. Many enthusiasts sometimes get much more than they have paid for, which means beside the auroras you may also be privy to watching the dazzling starlit sky, the Milky Way, occasional shooting stars and in very rare instances also the moon-bow. And we are not even talking of the experience of driving through the heartland of Iceland, with bated breath and brightened eyes. Yes, there may be innumerable reasons to come to Iceland to watch the enigmatic auroras and I guess you may just have to find yours – cheap flights for starts. And if I may underline watching aurora borealis is an experience of a lifetime that would be an understatement!