Lights over Lapland

Lights over Lapland banner

Written by Supernova

Mar 8, 2021

Having recently travelled about 201 km north of the Arctic Circle to Abisko in Lapland Sweden; to see the beautiful northern lights which took me three airplanes and a bus to get there from South Africa.

Every evening, I braved the outdoors of -25ºC. I stood behind my camera, sometimes ankle deep in snow, waiting. But I didn’t care because I was waiting in anticipation to capture the first appearance of eerie pale green light in the night sky… even though my toes and fingers ached and my breath left ice crystals in my hair. The wait in the intense cold was worth every second.

When I saw my first aurora borealis, better known as the northern lights, it was a magical, goosebump moment that I know I’ll never experience the same way again. As the pale green light made its way across the sky, I had an almost indescribable feeling of excitement and peace at the same time. Let me tell you a little bit more about the lights over Lapland…

Lapland extends over NORWAY, Sweden and Finland.

What are the Northern Lights?

The northern lights are a natural, coloured light display in the sky, usually seen above the magnetic pole of the northern hemisphere. They extend from about 80 to 640 km above the surface of the Earth.

The northern lights can be seen when electrically charged particles released from the Sun’s atmosphere and gas particles in the Earth’s atmosphere bumped into each other. What happens is that the temperature above the surface of the Sun is millions of degrees Celsius and at such a high temperature, explosions due to gas molecule collisions are common.

The free electrons and protons are blown from the Sun’s atmosphere towards the Earth by a solar wind caused by the rotation of the Sun. They reach Earth two to three days later. The Earth’s magnetic field is weaker at the poles, so the northern lights may be seen when the electrons and protons are lead towards an oval along the magnetic lines around the poles where they collide with gas particles in the Earth’s atmosphere. When the collisions take place, they release light energy, but also keep moving, which creates the dancing lights that we see when we look up at the sky.

The northern lights were seen when electrically charged particles were released from the Sun’s atmosphere and gas particles in the Earth’s atmosphere bumped into each other.

Colours

Auroral displays appear in many colours. Pale green and pink are the most common colours, but shades of red, violet, blue, green and yellow have been seen. I mostly saw pale green and pink lights. They were beautiful! The fact that there are different colours is because the particles from the Sun bind with different types of gas particles. Altitude also affects colour.

The pale green light is seen when oxygen molecules, about 96.5 km above the Earth’s surface, collide with electrically charged particles released by the Sun, the pink lights are produced by high-altitude oxygen (at nearly 322 km high), while nitrogen produces blue or purplish-red lights. Red, orange and yellow lights may also be seen sometimes. Displays can also occur up to about 1000 km high.

In most cases, the northern and southern lights are mirror-like images that happen at the same time. These lights are also similar in colour and shape.

Patterns

The lights also appear in many forms; from straight lines to patches or scattered clouds of light, to ‘rippling curtains’, arcs, streamers, or shooting rays. They can also take the form of travelling pulses, pulsating globs, or steady glows. The lines of the magnetic force affect the patterns of the lights. I mostly saw steady glows that made their way across the sky in a slightly arched line, but was lucky enough to see a few rippling ‘curtains’ too. They were all beautiful!

Where can you see the Northern Lights?

Irregularly shaped oval, centred over the northern magnetic pole are the best places to see the northern lights in action. And because of its micro-climate, Abisko in Lapland, Sweden is the best place to see the lights. This means that Abisko gets less snow and rain, and has clearer skies than anywhere else in the auroral zone. There is also no air or light pollution from the tiny town. This guarantees a chance of seeing the lights during aurora season.

You can also see the northern lights over the northern coastal waters of Siberia; the northern coast of Norway, the southern tip of Greenland and Iceland, as well as north-western Canada and Alaska. To see them, look in the direction of the nearest pole.

What is the best time to see the Northern Lights?

The northern lights occur most often near the equinoctes. They are most spectacular during high solar sunspot activity, which happens every 11 years. So some years the lights are brighter or dimmer than previously. They are more frequent and brighter during an intense phase of the solar cycle when the solar wind is increased. The next best time to watch the northern lights is during winter in the northern hemisphere in 2024.

In some places, like Alaska and Greenland, the lights may be visible most nights of the year. As they occur any time of the day, they can only be seen with the naked eye at night.

Thanks to Chad and Linnea Blakley for the amazing experience in Abisko! Visit their website lightsoverlapland.com and Facebook page.

Vol 2.4 cover

This article first appeared in Supernova Volume 2.4
Words by Andrea Vermaak and Carina Vermooten
Illustrations and design by William Rech

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