Aurora borealis – the northerly light of dawn
Kiruna in all its crispy coldness often see clear, starry skies. This is when the northern lights are at their most breathtaking, dancing across the sky and offering a spectacular sight. A fascinating and unique experience that you’ll never forget.
The beautiful, different coloured lights that you can see dancing across the sky in the northern parts of the world are known as the northern lights. Their Latin name, aurora borealis, came into use back in the 17th century. Aurora was the goddess of the dawn in ancient Roman mythology, and Borealis means “northerly”. So the name actually means “northerly dawn” or “northerly light of dawn”. The northern Sámi name for the northern lights, guovsahas, is also linked with the light of dawn.
Since ancient times people has been amazed by the northern lights and tried to relate to it through myths and legends. Among the Sámi, it was important to meet the northern lights with reverence. Whistling or to joik (Sámi singing) disrespectfully under northern lights could be dangerous!
A belief common to many indigenous peoples in northern Europe, America and Asia is that the northern lights were the place where the dead resided, but only those who died a violent or premature death were welcome to the northern lights. Some made sure their kids wore hats outside so that the lights could not burn their hair.
The Sámi also believed that northern lights and weather had a connection. They believed that you could change the weather by changing the northern lights, including a chant that started “gokseth lipi, lipi”. Lipi is an abbreviation of the word lihphuit meaning fluttering.
The imaginative stories around the northern lights are many and entertaining, but today we know a lot more about how the northern lights occur.
WHAT are the northern lights?
The northern lights are created by a combination of the sun, the atmosphere and magnetic fields. The magnetosphere captures and redirects particles of energy from the sun, and the beautiful light and colours of the northern lights are created when these come into contact with oxygen and nitrogen. The Earth is surrounded by magnetic field lines, and high-energy particles from the sun are dragged down towards the Earth when they’re captured by these lines. They then follow the field lines down through the upper atmosphere, at altitudes of 80–300 kilometres, and collide with oxygen and nitrogen. This collision shifts the energy temporarily and converts it into light. So the visible lines of the magnetic field create the curtain of colours that we see in the northern lights.
WHEN can you see the northern lights?
Kiruna’s location within the auroral oval offers fantastic opportunities to see the northern lights from September to March. Often you can see the northern lights as early as the end of August until a bit in April. The time of the northern lights varies depending on how early the darkness occurs; during the winter season you can see the northern lights as early as 16:00 in the afternoon.
The northern lights are always present in the sky, even during the day, however, the sky is too bright for the northern lights to be seen. Therefore, you have the chance to see the northern lights as soon as the sky gets dark enough and it is fairly clear weather. If the northern lights are very weak, it can be difficult to distinguish from a cloud. Look closely – if you see stars through it, it’s northern lights and also the northern lights change shape all the time unlike a cloud.
In Scandinavia, the most active northern lights appear most often before midnight. It is very important to look at the sky often since the most intense part often lasts less than ten minutes.
Northern lights can be seen almost every night during the dark season.
WHERE can you see the northern lights?
Everywhere! The proximity to nature makes it easy to quickly get to a place that is free from disturbing city lights and experience the magnificent colour show against a dark night sky.
From the city center in Kiruna you can see northern lights at times, but it’s best to get away from the worst light pollution. If you are walking on foot, we recommend a walk to Camp Ripan, which is about 15 minutes from the city center, and here they have set up customized street lights with angled screens to make it easier to view the northern lights dancing in the sky!
A slightly longer walk from the city center, about 30 minutes, is the city mountain Luossavaara where many goes in the evening to capture the northern lights on camera.
The small village Abisko lies right at the center of the auroral oval and is considered the best place in the world to experience the northern lights. The location, together with the clear and clean air and often cloudless skies, creates optimum conditions for northern lights viewing.
HOW can you best experience the northern lights?
In Kiruna you can experience the northern lights in a variety of ways. Combine with an exciting activity in the evening or head out on a pure northern lights hunting expedition with a guide. Experience the Sàmi culture with the northern lights or spend an evening in something as special as an Aurora Dome.
You can also join any of Kiruna’s professional photographers on a photo tour where you will learn everything about how to capture the magic light phenomenon in a picture. Or take a ski lift that takes you to Aurora Sky Station on Mount Njullá, 900 meters above sea level, and see the dancing northern lights from the balcony to space.
There are many testimonies that the northern lights can not only be seen but also heard. Listen, next time the northern lights dance!
Note! Northern lights is a natural phenomenon and there are no guaranties for them to show up. The weather up here in the arctic can change in an instant, which means the weather forecasts are not always that reliable.