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Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

The Beauty, Magic and Science of the Northern Lights

Article by: Naima El Hawary

Lighting up the Sky: The Northern Lights

Standing, waiting patiently under the darkest of night’s skies, great curtains of delicate light begin to hang and tremble, as if from Heaven. Pale green and rose-pink, and as transparent as the most fragile fabric, and at the bottom edge a profound and fiery crimson like the fires of Hell, they swing and shimmer  loosely with more grace than the most skilful dancer. For centuries, humans have been enchanted by Aurora; green, blue and even pink colours lighting up the night sky. And for the most part, nobody has been able to explain the phenomenon. The story of the Northern Lights is a story that begins with the origins of human astronomy.

The History of the Northern Lights

The Northern Lights are believed to be depicted in Cro-Magnon cave paintings, made in 30,000 BC throughout Spain and France. The first written description of the phenomenon is believed to be found in a Chinese text, written in the 10th century BC. Important astronomers, such as Aristotle noted the existence of the Northern Lights. Another astronomer, Galileo Galilei, who significantly contributed to our current understanding of the universe, named the phenomenon Aurora Borealis.

Mythology and Folklore

Before humans could understand the science behind the stunning Aurora, they were often considered supernatural phenomena. The Sami, who are the indigenous people of Lapland, for example, were said to fear and avoid the Northern Lights. They believed that the Lights were the souls of their ancestors and that they should therefore not be disturbed or disrespected. In Old Norse Mythology, the mysterious lights were seen as a reflection of the Valkyrie’s armour, deciding who would go to Valhalla, the afterlife. In Greenland, it was believed by some that the Northern Lights were the spirits of children who had died at birth. Others in Greenland, the Northern Inuits, believed that the lights were spirits who were playing games with a walrus skull. Ancient Nordic people attached great significance to the Northern Lights.

The Science Behind the Beautiful Phenomenon

It was only fairly recently that the secret of the Northern Lights was lifted; in the 20th century, scientists started discovering what caused them to appear. Nowadays, it is widely known how the Northern Lights are formed; solar wind, which is a stream of particles released by the sun that collides with the magnetic field of planet Earth. When this occurs, the particles can enter the magnetic field of the planet and move towards the poles. At the poles, these particles collide with gas particles present in the planet’s atmosphere. When this happens, energy is released, and the lights appear. For example, when the particles of the solar wind collide with oxygen, the Northern Lights are shards green and when they collide with nitrogen, they are swirls pink.

Secrets in the Sky

Not all of the Aurora’s secrets have been discovered. In 2018, NASA launched the Parker Solar Probe which is planned to one day reach and ‘touch’ the sun. This would not only reveal information about the solar system but also the Northern Lights. The more technologically advanced humans became, the more they understood that Aurora Borealis are a scientific phenomenon instead of a supernatural one. The French physicist Jean-Jaques Dortous de Mairan was one of the first to theorise that the lights were a result of a collision with Earth’s magnetic field. In the 20th century, when humans had access to satellites, they were finally able to understand the scientific reasons behind the Aurora. Will more be discovered in the future?

Where You Can See Them Yourself

Many dream of seeing the Northern Lights. While Aurora occasionally does appear in cities throughout the North, such as Stockholm or Trondheim, they can more frequently be seen from the Arctic Circle. To have the best chance, you should wander away from the lights of the city and any obstacles. Lapland is ideal for seeing the Northern Lights. Here, close to the Arctic and with few city lights, Aurora is frequently dancing across the skies. Here, you can see landscapes of fire and ice tinted green by the aurora in the night sky, undisturbed by the luminosity of busy cities. One of the best places to see the Northern Lights is Haparanda-Tornio, the Swedish-Finnish twin city. Situated in the North of the Baltic Sea and only 80 kilometres away from the Arctic Circle, the conditions are ideal. The highest point in Haparanda-Tornio is Nivavaara, which is connected to a 700m hiking trail that you can climb up to see the Lights. If you would rather go in a group, you can book a tour and climb up with a guide. In Haparanda-Tornio, you could also see the Northern Lights at a restaurant or while at a sauna; the possibilities are endless. Or if you would like to take part in a truly Nordic experience, you can go swimming in the icy water of the Torne River while gazing at the Northern Lights.

When and How to See Them

Between September and April is the ideal time to hunt the Northern Lights. Using an app or a website that forecasts the Northern Lights gives you a better chance. And do not worry if it takes a while, aurora is hard to predict. It is also best to go and hunt aurora when the moon is close to the new moon, as a full moon can make the lights appear fainter. Finally, make sure you are wearing warm clothes when hunting the Northern Lights, it is usually freezing cold in the Arctic Circle.


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