What are the Northern Lights? Where’s the best place to see them? What the hell is a firefox? We’ve gathered all the best Northern Lights info right here.
Some time in late August, the sun finally dips far enough below the horizon that stars once again appear in the skies above Finland. And with the return of the stars comes one of the north’s most magical experiences: the Northern Lights. These silky dancing specters, also called aurora borealis, appear as green or violet sheets swaying silently (or crackling softly, depending on who you ask.) Caused by storms sent from the sun itself, seeing the Northern Lights is a transformative experience, a gift from the cosmos itself. There’s the you before you saw the aurora borealis, and the you after.
Read on to discover the best places and times to see the auroras and more information on the magical Northern Lights.
Where can you see auroras?
It’s all about that latitude, baby! Aurora borealis (and its southern sister aurora australis) are phenomena that really only appear in the skies near the North and South Poles. In the southern hemisphere, it’s a privilege almost entirely confined to the frosty plains and mountains of Antarctica. Up north, however, auroras grace the heavens above Alaska, northern Canada, northern Scandinavia, and Russia.
As Lapland lies almost entirely above the Arctic Circle, the Northern Lights are familiar sights in our dark skies. Utsjoki, being the northernmost region of Lapland, is the best place to see the wistful waltz of the Northern Lights.
But auroras regularly appear everywhere in northern Lapland, whether you’re in the city streets, standing on the shores of the Bothnian Bay, or even amid bustling ski resorts.
When can you see the Northern Lights?
Let’s do a small test. Look out the window. If you’re in the Arctic, and it’s dark outside, you have a 50/50 or better chance of seeing the Northern Lights on any given night. The farther north you are, the more likely you are to see the whirling whorls with you own eyes. In other words, autumn and winter are the best times to see the auroras.
Of course, the Northern Lights are like the weather … in fact, they are weather, sent to us by the sun. Predicting auroras is more a science than a guessing game, but there’s never any guarantee, no matter where you are or when you visit Lapland in winter.
Dark Skies, Crossed Fingers
The best months to see the Northern Lights are usually September and March, when there’s around 12 hours of day and night. However, your chances of seeing auroras is still pretty good in between, as winter in Lapland is full of starry skies and long nights.
Make sure you bring some coffee, if you’re an early bird, as the best time of night to see them is generally between 9pm and 1am, though they are often witnessed at all hours. The only necessary ingredients are Arctic locales and dark skies. Aurora guides will often take you out to a secluded spot, where you can enjoy the winter night, a campfire, and a cup of coffee or six while you wait.
How can I get an aurora forecast?
Aurora forecasts are a popular way to keep tabs on those slithery specters. There are many websites and tracking services like Aurora Alert that let you follow the auroras.
Finland also offers more localized aurora alerts, like the Pyhä Aurora Alerts and the Luosto Aurora Alerts. Many hotels and most glass igloos also offer personalized aurora alerts, so you don’t have to worry about sleeping away while the auroras dance overhead.
Where do Northern Lights come from?
The easy answer is magic. The more complicated answer begins in the heart of the sun, where particles are formed by intense nuclear reactions. Eventually, these particles are fired from the sun during times of high solar activity. These electrically charged particles are flying along, and most miss the Earth entirely, but a lucky few are destined for our blue planet.
fire in the sky
When they reach the upper atmosphere, they interact with charged particles of a more Earthly origin. Their meetings create dazzling light shows, which we get to see as breathtaking auroras.
How can I photograph auroras?
Capturing the Northern Lights for that perfect Instagram post is a challenge, but it’s one that many in Lapland have risen to meet. There are numerous recommendations and details you should consider. Check out our Aurora Hunter checklist to help you prepare for the big night.
The easiest way is to go on an aurora safari with an experienced photographer who can help you get the most out of your camera, whether it’s an expensive DSLR or even your phone.
How do I prepare for an aurora hunt?
For most of the year, hunting auroras isn’t as easy as grabbing your camera and heading into the dark. Winters in northern Finland range from mild, when the temperature drops just below zero, and the snow is wet and crunchy, to -40°C, when your eyelashes freeze shut, and your lips chap just from the thought of going outside.
prep is key
Bring layers, food & water, buddy-system, flashlights, cellphones, hand warmers & more. Check our tips to keep warm by dressing right, and read the Aurora Hunter’s check list to keep safe & capture dreamy photos.
Find out more tips for your Aurora hunting in Lapland from these articles:
The color and the sound (of the Northern Lights)
Most commonly, those particles from the sun interact with oxygen. This causes the oxygen to shoot out a greenish-yellowish light. That’s why we see most auroras as green. Another common color is violet, which comes from nitrogen in the atmosphere.
But occasionally, oxygen will get really excited and pop off a red lightshow. In exceptional times, these powerful red auroras have even been seen as far south as the Caribbean! (One such geomagnetic storm in 1859 disrupted and destroyed telegraph systems across Europe and North America.)
But what does an aurora sound like, you ask … That’s a good question, one only recently answered by Finnish scientists. Though reports of auroras crackling or rustling were long considered folklore, in 2012, researchers observed sounds emanating from the air as a result of auroras. It’s not common, but if the daytime weather is just right, you might hear something even rarer than the auroras themselves.
Read more about the myths and science of Auroras and listen to the magical sounds of Lapland
Etymology and myths of auroras
The etymology of Northern Lights should be pretty obvious, but what does aurora borealis mean? It comes from Latin, Aurora being the goddess of the dawn, and borealis meaning north.
Considering their name comes from the gods themselves, it’s no surprise there are many myths and legends surrounding the auroras. For example, a baby conceived under the Northern Lights will be beautiful and lucky. Auroras can be the spirits of the dead, or fire caused by the tail of the mystical firefox, or magic spells cast by the unseen forces of light and dark. And those are just the myths told in Finland!