A rippling curtain of ethereal green-white light dancing across the night sky; the mysterious Northern Lights are truly one of nature’s wonders. From what causes these multi-coloured light ribbons to where to witness their magical display, here’s everything you need to know about the Northern Lights.
The Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, as they’re also known are steeped in legend. Their name comes from ancient times, a blend of Aurora (the Roman Goddess of Dawn) and Borealis (meaning morning light coming from the North) in Latin. Once upon a time, the luminous blaze meant something different to each community who witnessed it: the spirits of the dead, a window into the realm of the gods, fire breathed by dragons, even a bad omen marking the arrival of war or disease.
The Science Bit:
Today, the science behind the Northern Lights is less of a mystery. The sun is constantly firing solar flares into space. When these electrically-charged particles whizz towards the Earth, most bounce off its shield-like magnetic field. The exception is at the North and South poles, where the magnetic force pushes straight into the Earth. Here, the sun’s particles are guided down into our atmosphere, crashing into molecules of oxygen and nitrogen on their way.
It is these high-energy collisions that create the Northern Lights and the more bumps, the bigger the show. The colour of the light depends on the gas involved: oxygen creates bright green, the most common shade, and rarer crimson, while nitrogen makes a blue glow. Pretty pinks and lavender come from a combination of the two.
Where to see Mother Nature’s Disco:
The ideal place to spot the Northern Lights is Northern Scandinavia, although their shimmer can stretch as far south as England. Head away from light-polluted areas out into the middle of nowhere. The only time our eyes can pick out the aurora is after nightfall – two to three hours either side of midnight is your best bet. Winter is the darkest season, but autumn and spring have milder weather and a better chance of cloudless skies.
Iceland puts on some of the best Northern Lights displays. You can catch them there between September and mid-April, but November is when they start getting really show-stopping. Leave the big city lights for places like Hella, a quiet town in the south of the country. A short boat ride off the coast of Reykjavik can also provide a stunning viewpoint – floating on the black water under the stars as the sky comes alive with vivid colour.
Of course, because nature is in charge, the conditions could be perfect but the Lights won’t show. Luckily, Iceland is a land of many natural spectacles. Watch magnificent waterfalls gush down craggy green cliffs and hot springs erupt; walk across glaciers and volcanic black sand beaches; and take a dip in the famous thermal waters of the Blue Lagoon. When the crisp night falls, drive out to the rugged countryside and, if the timing is right, you might just get your very own Aurora Borealis performance.
Keen to see the awe-inspiring Northern Lights for yourself? The join our trip to visit The Northern Lights of Iceland.