• 27. February 2018
  • Blog

Imagine the cold winter night in Northern Norway. The skies are clear, and you gaze upon the millions of stars, realizing how small the earth is compared to the rest of the universe. It’s cold outside, but your winter clothes keep you warm and comfortable. Cozy, as we like to say in Norway.

Just when you have identified the handful of stars you know; a green veil slowly shows itself across the sky. It’s not very strong at first, but the mystery of the light keeps your eyes locked on it. Suddenly, almost in the blink of an eye, the sky explodes. The intense green colour stretches from horizon to horizon, and covers up your entire field of view. It’s dancing and moving, and you feel like it’s just showing off its extraordinary strength and beauty. You want to take a picture, but the immersive experience makes you unable to move. But you’re fine with that, because your body is filled with appreciation of being right there, right then.

This was my Thursday night. I grew up in the north, and I couldn’t even begin to count how many times the Northern Lights have left me breathless. And it still does.

The Northern Lights on said thursday. Seen from Kvaløya, next to Tromsø.

 

Northern Lights, Aurora Borealis, Polar Light, Lady Aurora.

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet (that’s Shakespeare, not me).

It’s no surprise that the Northern Lights has had a special place in the heart of humans throughout history. You’ll find scriptures by Aristotle, Pliny the Elder and Seneca describing the phenomenon, and even 4 000-year-old Chinese writing documents what seems to be the Aurora. It was the Italian polymathematician Galileo Galilei who named the lights Aurora Borealis – the dawn of the north.

In the north, the Vikings had a special bond to the Northern Lights. They considered the lights to be dancing virgins waiting for them in Valhalla. It’s also possible that the Northern Lights is what the Vikings called Bivrost, the bridge between Midgard (earth) and Åsgård (the realm of the gods).

The Sami people, arriving in the north of Scandinavia about 12 000 years ago, also has a close connection to the Northern Lights: Guovssahas – the audible light. In Sami tradition, our ancestors lives in the Northern Lights. It represents a supernatural power, and it’s important to respect it. You are not supposed to whistle, sing, make noise, or Joik (the traditional Sami singing) while the Guovssahas shows itself in the sky.

Read our blog post about the difficult history of the Sami people

This idea has transferred to the Norwegian settlers, who still tells the children that you shouldn’t annoy the Northern Lights. Especially if you wave a white piece of cloth, the lights will come get you. Of course, we did this all the time as kids. But only for a few seconds before we ran for our lives.

Galileo Galilei named the mysterious light after Aurora, the godess of the dawn. Illustration from AuroraWonder.com

 

The science behind the Aurora

Scientists started systematically researching the northern lights in the 17th century. Swedish astronomer Anders Celcius made the discovery that there was a connection between the lights and changes in the magnetic field of the earth, and that the solar activity affected the strength of the lights.

However, the first complete northern lights theory was made by Norwegian physicist Kristian Birkeland, in 1886. He showed that the Northern Lights are made when electric currents from the sun reaches the magnetic field of the earth, where they are pulled down into the atmosphere and causes the atmospheric gases to light up. This finding is the foundation of research on the Northern Lights, which to this day are far from complete. In Norway we have two research stations launching research rockets into the atmosphere to observe and research the Northern Lights: One in Svalbard, and one in Andøya, a 20-minute flight from Tromsø.

Kristian Birkeland studies the Northern Lights. Photo: Norsk Teknisk Museum

Chasing the Lights

Where is the best place to see the lights? And when? Can you see them from the camping or from the city? We get these questions every day, and we are more than happy to help you find them!

To see the northern lights, there are three main factors in play:

  1. As Kristian Birkeland proved, the Northern Lights is caused by electrical particles from the sun reaching our atmosphere. This means that solar activity decides whether the lights will be there or not. Luckily the sun is usually active, and we use Aurora Forecast-apps online to try to foresee the Northern Lights activity. Check out this one from the University of Tromsø, for example.
  2. We need clear skies. As the Northern Lights appears from 80 kilometres up in the sky, clouds are going to get in the way. Check the local weather forecast, and make sure you find a spot with clear skies.
  3. It needs to be dark. The Northern Lights are not a strong light source, which means that your surrounding areas should be as dark as possible to get the best views. We don’t really think about it, but the Northern Lights are up there all year around, and it’s not working on the clock. However, as the summer months are filled with light, we cannot see them. This also means that you should avoid artificial lights from the city when looking for them. Luckily, our camping is located right outside the city, making it a perfect spot for relaxing in your cabin and watching the Northern Lights from your doorstep.
Northern Lights seen from Tromsø Camping this winter

 

If you want a guided experience, where you’ll be driven to the top spots, served a warm cup of coffee or tea, and told all about the lights – we’ll help you book it right here in the reception. We’re also happy to help you check the aurora- and the weather forecast.

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