What are the northern lights?
Northern Lights, also known as Aurora Borealis appears when electrically charged particles (electrons and protons) from the sun are carried in the solar wind to the earth’s atmosphere. There they collide with gaseous particles, injecting them with extra energy which they then emit in dramatic displays that we call the northern lights. The northern lights form in the polar regions because the earth’s magnetic fields pull the particles to the poles.
Did you know?
When the Aurora appears in the Northern Hemisphere, it is called Aurora Borealis, and when it appears in the Southern Hemisphere it is called Aurora Australis or Southern lights. The northern and southern lights occur simultaneously and are almost mirror images of each other. The northern lights mostly appear at altitudes of some 60 to 90 miles (90-130 km), sometimes much higher. They also occur on other planets, including Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Mars. They actually appear in summer as well, but the bright nights at these latitudes make them difficult to see.
When, where to see Northern Lights
When is the best time for Northern Lights? The elusive Northern Lights are impossible to predict, despite ever-developing forecasting methods.
The best time of day to see the Aurora
The general rule is that the sky must be clear and dark. Some have seen the Northern Lights already in the afternoon, while others in the early hours of the morning. Our feeling, however, is that we tend to catch them between 9 and 11 pm.
The best time of year to see the Aurora
The dark months of the year! Contrary to popular belief that winter and snow is the prime time for northern lights hunting, fall season between September and November is actually an equally good if not better season. The evenings are sufficiently long and the reflective, white snow has yet to arrive so the darkness is compact and of course provides safer road conditions if you are planning to do a self-drive trip. The temperatures are milder, hovering between 0 and 10 degrees C, which is a definite plus if you are hoping to photograph the lights. Also - it's still fairly unknown that you can experience northern lights this early in the year, so many destinations are not as busy.
Kiruna – the best place in the world for Northern Lights according to space scientists and travel experts
The Auroral Belt or Oval wraps around the magnetic North Pole between approximately Lat 66 and 69. Your chances of seeing the northern lights are at their best if you are in a location within the Oval. The further south from the Oval, the less are your chances of seeing the Aurora and in particular in the same size and variation of colors as in the true north, above the Arctic Circle.
Kiruna, Sweden’s northernmost town, is located 200 km north of the Arctic Circle. With a typically more stabile inland weather, your chances of seeing the northern lights are ideal if you are in the vast wilderness areas surrounding Kiruna.
In fact, Kiruna’s weather conditions and infrastructure has made it an international hub for space research, with government agencies and scientists from around the world traveling to Kiruna to test their instruments, launch satellites and collect data using radars.
Depending on what type of experience you are looking for, Kiruna offers an interesting menu of adventures, ranging from in-depth multi-day photography or scientific trips to combinations with other bucket list experiences such as the Sami culture, snowmobiling or dog sledding.
The perfect spot
Kiruna is the gateway for several interesting villages for northern lights watching:
- Jukkasjärvi (coincidentally, where Icehotel is located!)
- Abisko (on the fringes of Abisko National Park)
We’re mighty proud that Icehotel made the Northern Lights holiday bucket list of the well-traveled folks over at National Geographic and Travel + Leisure. Just keep in mind the most important factor for success in your search of the Northern Lights is that you get out into the wilderness and away from light pollution caused by electric lights. As temperatures can be cold we strongly recommend you join a knowledgable guide or local and make sure you are properly dressed for the Arctic.
Northern lights mythology
It’s no surprise that something as supernatural as the northern lights is awash with myths and stories. Cultures right across the north understood the aurora through imagery that ranges from poetic to somber to horrifying.
- The Finnish word for the northern lights is “revontulet”, which literally means “fox fire”. According to an ancient Finnish myth, a magical fox swept its tail across the snow, whipping it up into the sky.
- For the Sámi people of northern Scandinavia, the lights were energy from the souls of deceased ancestors. When the lights appeared, people were to behave solemnly. Disrespecting them could result in sickness or even death.
- The Fox people of central North America feared the northern lights, believing them to be the souls of slain enemies ready to take revenge.
- A myth in many Inuit cultures says that the lights are the spirits of the dead playing ball with a walrus head or skull. However, for Alaska’s Nunivak Islanders, it was walrus spirits playing with a human skull.
When you experience the northern lights with your own senses you’ll understand how they could inspire such powerful legends.
Hearing Northern Lights
Many people claim to have heard the Aurora. They liken the sound to crackling noises, muffled bangs, delicate hissing chimes, clapping, popping, low-frequency noise or radio static. A few have compared it to a small animal rustling through dry grass and leaves, or the crinkling of a cellophane wrapper. Some Inuit folklore says it’s the spirits of the dead, trying to communicate with the living.
However, science tells us we can’t hear the lights the same way we hear, say, thunder. One reason is that the air between the aurora and a human on the earth is far too thin to carry sound over such a long distance. So if the sound doesn’t travel from the lights to the viewer’s ears, how can we explain “hearing” the northern lights?
A Finnish researcher has presented one theory: the sound is created in the vicinity of the listener, by the same phenomenon – particles colliding – that gives rise to the northern lights themselves. At this altitude, the intensity is too low to create light. However static charges can build up on nearby objects, resulting in sound. Another hypothesis is that while electrical impulses move from the eye to the brain, they “leak” into the part of the brain that processes sound. This can supposedly occur when there are little other ambient sounds.
One theory, perhaps the most probable, relates to very low-frequency radio waves, which have been detected in aurora displays. Materials such as grass, hair and eyeglass frames serve as antennae, receiving the radio waves and transforming them into sound. Lots of possibilities. Why not listen for yourself?
Photographing Northern Lights
Wondering how to photograph Northern Lights? You’re up for a challenge because capturing them through a camera lens is not easy. Temperatures well below freezing can take their toll on your camera battery, your fingers, and your morale. Light is scarce and you’re trying to photograph something that flashes and flows across the sky, before fading away as enigmatically as it appeared.
We asked Lapland native and professional photographer Paulina Holmgren to share her insider tips with us on how to best capture the lights on camera for the family photo album. With the quality of today’s digital cameras, it is possible for anyone to succeed in this – but be prepared, it isn’t easy. Paulina says:
My best tips are to be patient and to dress well – getting the perfect shot can take time so don’t be scared to experiment with the camera and dress up in warm clothing so you don’t get cold. A good pair of gloves that allow you to access the buttons and settings without having to take them off is invaluable!
Tips on photographing the Aurora Borealis with your DSLR
- Try to use a camera that allows high ISO-settings and minimal noise levels.
- Use optics with a maximum aperture for shooting at night
- Take the photos in RAW-format so you can reduce noise afterward.
- Long shutter speed, from 4 to 12 seconds – the northern lights can vary greatly in strength so the best guidance I can give here is to experiment with various shutter speeds.
- Shorter focal lengths and if possible wide-angle shots as this allow for better sharpness despite longer shutter speed and it also makes nice photos as you fit in as much of the sky as possible.
- Use a tripod for stability.
- Try to find locations and angles where you get something in the foreground of the image, this can make for very interesting shots.
- If possible, bring a fully charged spare battery and extra memory card.
And - last but not least, keep warm! Wear layers and gloves that let you operate your camera, and bring a flask of hot water or coffee out with you.
Northern lights activities at Icehotel