A few weeks ago I wrote a post on how to photograph the Northern Lights without a DSLR and while I’m really proud of that one, from the comments I got on it I noticed that I never really told you anything about the Northern Lights in general.
Sure, if you come to Tromso you would totally want to know how to capture the lights but first and foremost you’d be interested in seeing them at all and I get that!
Therefore I asked a real Norwegian, my boyfriend Simon, to tell you everything you need to know about the Northern Lights from a local’s perspective!
So you finally decided to visit Tromso to see the Northern Lights. Let me explain you what the Northern Lights are, give you some tips on when and where to see them and share some mythology surrounding it.
What are the Northern Lights and what causes them?
What causes the Northern Lights is complex and not something your average Joe would know so much about.
But according to Wikipedia, the Northern Lights
“are produced when the magnetosphere is sufficiently disturbed by the solar wind that the trajectories of charged particles in both solar wind and magnetospheric plasma, mainly in the form of electrons and protons, precipitate them into the upper atmosphere, where their energy is lost. The resulting ionization and excitation of atmospheric constituents emits light of varying colour and complexity”
Basically, particles erupt from the sun, react with the atmosphere and lose their energy, and voila - The Northern Lights!
Where and when can you see them?
The Northern Lights are aptly named, because you can only see them in the northern parts of the world, that is the Arctic Circle and above.
Although there have been sightings of the Northern Lights as south as Kristiansand (one of the southernmost cities in Norway at the same latitude as the northern parts of Scotland and Latvia), going north of the Arctic Circle is the only safe bet to see them.
There is also something called the Southern Lights, also known as the Aurora Australis, which can be seen in the southern parts of the world, but that’s not why you’re here for.
When is the best time to see the Northern Lights?
In Northern Norway you can see the Northern Lights from September to March. The best months to see them would be September, October, February and March. The reason for that is heavy snowfall or rain and more clouds in the other months.
Vanessa and I have been out looking at the Northern Lights a couple of times in October this year and it was fantastic. It also helped that the cold hadn’t truly set in, so we managed to stay outside longer.
It should go without saying but the skies should be clear, or almost clear at least, if you want to see the Northern Lights.
Hunting the Northern Lights in Tromso
In addition, it also needs to be completely dark and you should stay away from cities and places with a lot of lights. It is possible to see the Northern Lights from Tromso Island but if you want to truly see and photograph them, head outside the city and away from the lights.
You can however stay on Tromso Island if you can’t afford to join a Northern Lights safari or rent a car. There are a couple of places that are dark enough to see the lights properly and that can be reached by public transport.
Telegrafbukta at the southern tip of the island is a nice place to be not only during the day but also at night and the lights from the city centre should not interfere with your viewing there.
Another good place to be is the ski jumping tower. Even though it might be a bit tricky to get there, if you do manage to get there, you can climb the tower and you will get a nice view. Plus it is pretty dark there with not that many lights around.
Another good place is Prestvannet. It is on top of the island, so most of the lights from the city don’t obstruct your view. Plus it’s a lake, which means you have unobstructed view without any mountains or trees.
If you’d like to get detailed info on the places mentioned, tips on how to photograph the lights or want to know where you should head on a cloudy day in order to see them, you can buy the Insider’s Guide to Tromso below.
Myths and superstition around the Northern Lights
Because of science we now know what the Northern Lights really are. However back in the day when they were all still a mystery, people drew their own conclusions on what the lights were and so superstitions developed.
When I was little I wasn’t supposed to whistle towards the Northern Lights. My parents told me that the lights would get angry and come catch me if I did. It so happened that every time I did whistle when I was little, the Northern Lights moved or danced and I used to get scared and I had to run home because I was afraid they would take me.
I also read a children’s cartoon called “Valhall” which follows the adventures of a mortal boy and his sister when he becomes a servant to Thor, the Norse God of Thunder. The story says that the Northern Lights are what separates Midgard (where humans live), Valhalla (where the gods live) and Utgard (where trolls live).
Now, those cartoons were made for children (and some adults i.e me) but writers really researched Norse mythology to get a lot right.
There is a claim from Norse mythology (what the Vikings believed in) that the Northern Lights were caused by the Valkyries (warrior virgin women) when they rode back and forth to collect the souls of dead soldiers from battles to be brought to Valhalla. There they would live happily until Ragnarok, the end of the world and the final battle between good and evil.
However, there is not that much evidence from Old Norse literature to support the notion that the Vikings really believed that the Valkyries caused the Northern Lights.
During the Middle Ages, it was believed that the Northern Lights were a sign from God. Sometimes people in Central and Southern Europe could see the Northern Lights and since this was a very rare event, people became afraid and thought that the lights were a sign of punishment, war or diseases.
They have also been associated with death and the bridge between the living and the dead, in which people thought that the Northern Lights were souls.
Among the Sámi people, the Northern Lights had and still have a significant meaning, which is logical considering that they have been living in areas where the Northern Lights show themselves the most.
One of the names for the Northern Lights is Guovssahas, meaning the hearing lights, because sometimes you can hear them. When there is a lot of Northern Light activity, the particles can even interfere with radio waves!
Some say that if you wave at the Northern Lights they will increase in activity or they will come down and touch you. Or that if you wave a white cloth at them, they will move even more. Or that your eyes will hurt if you stare at them for too long. Or that you shouldn’t tease them or make fun of them, because they could get angry. Or laugh at them. Do this and they could come down and attack you or knock you out.
So, show some respect for the Northern Lights!
There never is a guarantee to see the Northern Lights and trust me, there have been a lot of good evenings when I really wished the Northern Lights could show themselves because the conditions were perfect.
Unfortunately a clear sky is not enough but there also needs to be activity in the atmosphere, which is measured by the Kp index. A low score diminishes your chances of seeing them while a high score tells you that it’s possible to see them not only in cities but also much further south than the Arctic Circle. Also, the intensity of the colours and size is always different.
In Lofoten, Vanessa and I once experienced incredible Northern Lights, which I have not seen for a really long time in Tromso.
Don’t despair though. Even if you don’t see the lights, the nature itself in and around Tromso or the rest of Northern Norway for that matter, totally makes up for it!
Have you ever seen the Northern Lights before? If not, where would you like to experience them?
Leave a comment below!
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Simon has lived his entire life in Norway and has grown up between the Norwegian/Swedish and the Sámi way of life. He currently lives in Tromso working in a kindergarden, helping with the blog and exploring the North with Vanessa.
More from Simon:
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