Some people use the term ‘aurora borealis’, while others know the ribbons of luminous color that dance across the skies of the Northern Hemisphere as the ‘northern lights’. No matter which name you prefer, there’s no denying that this spectacle of lights is one of the world’s most magnificent displays.
The first known writings about the auroral lights date back to 2nd millennium B.C. in China – the Emperor Xuanyuan Huangdi’s mother, Fu-Pao, is believed to be the first person to experience the northern lights and explained them as “strong lightning moving around the star Su, which belongs to the constellation of Bei-Dou, and the light illuminated the whole area.” Thousands of years later, the lights continued to baffle humans, and 16th-century drawings suggest people believed the dancing, luminous ribbons were created by candles burning above the clouds. Even renowned astronomer Galileo didn’t have the science right – he believed that they were a product of reflecting atmospheric sunlight. In fact, he used this misinformation to name the northern lights: In 1619, he dubbed the natural phenomenon ‘aurora borealis’ after the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek god of the north wind, Boreas.
Today, we have a far greater understanding of the northern lights and the science behind the magnificent illumination.
The sun is the foundation for the display – its magnetic fields curve and contort as it rotates on its axis, and these fields become entangled to create sunspots. From these sunspots, particles from our bubbling, boiling parent star are able to escape, and when they do, they cause solar winds that spew these electrically charged particles toward the Earth’s atmosphere, where magnetic forces pull them toward the North and South Poles. The energized particles form a magical light when they collide and interact with gases in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, and create and release energy in the form of radiant, dancing lights about 60 miles overhead. The aurora is at its most active up two days after a burst in sunspot activity, which tends to cause a more vigorous and brilliant show. The electromagnetic radiation creates undulating ribbons of light that vary in shape, strength, and color. The colors displayed reflect the types of gases that the energized particles are interacting with – when they meet with oxygen, they form green and yellow. Purple, red, and blue are often spurred from collisions with nitrogen.
Imagine this scenario: You're on a Hurtigruten voyage in winter traveling along the stunning Norwegian coastline. But its nighttime now, and the ship is moving slowly across the inky-black water. But you are not looking down, or looking at the landscape where islands, reefs, villages, and mountains slowly fade into the darkness. You and your fellow travelers stand on deck with your heads back, looking up into the dark night sky. And then... the aurora borealis appears, the incredible light show for which the polar night is so famous.
On this night they are green. The green light sweeps across the sky, at first like a giant scythe, before transforming into a bright veil that stretches eastward, westward, down to the sea and then up toward the North Star. The polar sky materializes in all its beauty as a canvas of light is being pulled across the sky. “The northern lights change without moving,” writes Scottish author Kathleen Jamie. “It is like a work of art that is never finished, that is constantly drawn, altered, done again.”
Viewing Aurora Borealis
While its counterpart aurora australis resides in the Southern Hemisphere, aurora borealis is most visible from the Northern Hemisphere in latitudes close to the Arctic. The dazzling lights are contained in what is known as the auroral oval and are at their most brilliant when directly overhead. (From farther distances, they appear more like a faint glow that, while beautiful, do not do justice to the stunning phenomenon.) Winter at around midnight is typically the best time to see the lights, as low levels of light pollution during this season lend themselves to clearer skies. While the best time to view the northern lights is fairly easy to predict, it’s important to keep in mind that only nature can determine the precise time that the phenomenon will occur. Factors such as clouds and high fog can also hinder one’s ability to catch a glimpse of the famed northern lights.
Tromsø, Norway, is located in the center of the Magnetic North Pole and one of the best places in the world for viewing the northern lights because the closer you are to Earth’s Magnetic North Pole, the more vibrant the spectacle of the northern lights will be.
Tips for Photographing the Northern Lights
You’ll surely want to take some photographs of the northern lights to document this amazing experience. In general, any camera will capture the colorful display, but taking quality pictures of light can be a tricky task. For the best photos of the auroral display, consider these tips:
Shoot with a wide-angle lens
The best option for photographing the northern lights is a wide-angle lens to capture the entire sky-wide aurora. Aim for a lens with a 10–24mm focal length and a maximum f/3.5 aperture (though f/2.8 is preferred).
Bring a second, interchangeable lens
You’ll want to be able to switch between your wide-angle lens for landscape shots and a standard lens for general photography. A standard 50mm lens will typically suffice for tourism photography.
Use a tripod
Avoid blurred images by bringing a tripod, preferably one with an adjustable mount.
Bring a Spare Memory Card
There is nothing more disappointing than realizing your faulty memory card didn’t store your photos. Bring extra memory cards and test them occasionally during the trip.