Chasing Auroras – The Science and Magic of the Northern Lights
Throughout the times, people have been fascinated by nature’s enchanting light show up in the sky as the darkness falls. What are the myths associated with the Aurora Borealis and what are the best destinations to admire them? We gathered ten questions and answers, from predicting the northern lights to seeing them both on the ground and from the aircraft.
1. Where and when can you see the northern lights?
The northern lights most commonly occur in latitudes between 60 and 75 degrees, meaning the northern parts of Finland, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Russia, Canada and Alaska as well as southern Greenland. In Finnish Lapland, the aurora borealis are visible roughly 200 nights a year. All you need is darkness, clear skies and a little bit of luck!
Finnair’s destinations in Finnish Lapland offer you a great chance to admire them, so head to Ivalo, Kittilä or Rovaniemi. You can take part in a northern lights tour, go aurora hunting on a frozen lake, or see them by lying in the warmth and comfort of your hotel bed if you choose one of the special Northern lights accommodations.
During the winter season, you can combine Finnish Rovaniemi with another arctic destination Tromsø, Norway, which also offers a great spot to see the auroras, as on average, they are visible 2–3 times per week during the peak season. Another great place to see them is Iceland, where Finnair flies to Reykjavik from Helsinki.
2. What is the best time of the year to see the northern lights?
Midnight is typically the best time to spot the northern lights in Finland, all the way from late August to April. Against common expectations, September is a particularly good time to see the northern lights in Lapland, as there is a higher chance of clearer, cloudless nights than in the middle of the winter. It needs to be dark enough with clear skies, and the less city light pollution you have around you, the better your chances of spotting them get.
3. Can the northern lights be predicted?
The northern lights can be predicted to some extent. However, it’s impossible to accurately predict them, but the amount and probability can be estimated using different criteria. Short-term forecasts 1–3 hours ahead are moderately reliable, while longer-term forecasts 1–3 days ahead have significant uncertainties.
The Finnish Meteorological Institute monitors small magnetic field fluctuations measured on the ground at about ten observation stations around Finland. You can see short-term forecasts on the website of the Finnish Space Weather Center ISES. Even still, you can always get the best information about their appearance by simply looking at the sky.
Longer-term forecasts are also provided by the Finnish Meteorological Institute's space weather forecast. The daily forecasts of the Royal Observatory of Belgium are more technical, while a popular site among enthusiasts around the world is Spaceweather.com, where users of the page can also share their own pictures.
4. What are the northern lights?
The northern lights are created when charged particles carried by the solar wind hit the Earth’s atmosphere at an altitude of about 80–250 kilometres. These particles collide with oxygen and nitrogen atoms in the atmosphere, causing the atoms to release energy as light.
The sun and solar wind are the source of energy for the aurora borealis when the charged particles of the solar wind interact with molecules in the Earth’s atmosphere. Most auroras occur between 80 and 250 kilometres in the atmosphere, their lower edge being sharp, while the upper edge gradually fades into invisibility.
5. Can the northern lights be in different colours?
In the night sky, you can most often see the northern lights dancing in shades of green and yellow, but red, purple or blue hues are also possible. The colour depends on what kind of atmospheric substances the particles of the solar wind collide with.
The most common, flaming aurora borealis in the shades of green are visible when particles of the solar wind meet oxygen atoms at an altitude of about one hundred kilometres. Green northern lights are also the easiest to spot because the human eye registers green shades more easily than other colours. Rarer shades of red, purple or blue, on the other hand, occur when oxygen molecules or nitrogen react with particles in the solar wind.
6. Can you see the northern lights from an airplane?
Especially during longer night flights in the wintertime, you may see the northern lights when the cabin lights are dimmed, and the flight path goes above the clouds. Choose a window seat, keep the lighting next to the seat to a minimum and prepare to see nature's artwork right from your window.
At Finnair, we don't do any special Northern Lights flights to see the magical lights, but if you're lucky, you can admire the northern lights on our regular scheduled flights. On our routes, the brightest northern lights are usually visible over Canada and over the parts of the North Atlantic that our flights use especially when flying west.
Our flight from Los Angeles to Helsinki is often excellent for catching the northern lights. The flight leaves from LA early in the evening and usually arrives in Canadian airspace during the midnight hours when the lights in the cabin are dimmed and the conditions are quite favourable for seeing the northern lights. Also on the flights going over the North Pole, for example our Tokyo and Seoul flights, you can see the northern lights, except for the area near the pole itself.
7. Do the northern lights somehow affect the flight path?
The aurora borealis has no direct effect on flight route planning. However, space weather and winds do affect the choice of the flight route.
8. Where does the Finnish name “fox fires” come from?
The gorgeous light phenomenon has several names or nicknames in Finnish, but the most used term fox fires or revontulet in Finnish has its roots in the mythical animal fire fox. According to an old legend, the tail of the fire fox running in the forests and on the fells sweeps a tree or the ground, making sparks rise into the sky as northern lights.
The term Aurora Borealis, on the other hand, means "dawn" and "north wind" or "northern dawn" in Greek. The name originates from ancient Greeks and Romans’ belief, in which the goddess of the dawn herself flies across the sky in her magnificent colourful chariots, which shows as the northern lights. This serves as a warning to the gods of the sun and moon about the arrival of a new day.
In most languages, the light phenomenon is called "northern lights" or polar lights, which aptly describes the visual form of them and the shimmering lights on the northern horizon.
9. What beliefs are associated with the northern lights?
As the terms “fox fires” and “aurora borealis” also suggest, the northern lights have been associated with many myths and legends throughout the ages. They have been respected and even feared. According to one story, once upon a time, there were giant people living in the north who went fishing in the Arctic Ocean. They burned huge bonfires to warm up and the big flames rose into the sky like the northern lights. Although the forests they inhabited have disappeared over time, the colourful blazes still appear in the sky from time to time.
For generations, northern cultures have also believed in the aurora borealis as torches of spirits, with which they guide the deceased to the land of happiness. On the other hand, one myth believes that they are spirits of the dead who play ball with a walrus head. War and plague have been predicted with them and sometimes they have been believed to be a bad omen. They have also been thought to be the souls of children playing in the sky who died at birth.
The northern lights are also associated with some health effects, and some have believed that they help in the treatment of heart diseases. In Japan, the aurora borealis is associated with a mysticism strongly linked to fertility, and it’s believed that a child born in their glow will be particularly happy. An old Asian myth also says that a person who has seen the northern lights lives happily for the rest of their life.
10. Do the northern lights have a sound?
As the northern lights dance in the sky, your ears may hear a variety of sounds. You may hear bangs, intermittent crackles or sharp pops, or a more continuous humming sound above you. Previously, the sound coming from them was considered a mere legend, but based on the measurements of recent years, the sounds are generated at a height of about 70 meters. However, the origin of the sound remains a mystery.
+ Bonus tip
If you don’t manage to see any northern lights on the ground during your trip or from your airplane window, you might still be able to spot them on your long-haul flights: in the ceiling of Finnair cabin!