Northern Lights-house -Photo Credit: Jamie Pryer
These days the idea of a Bucket List is really spreading like wildfire and right up there with skydiving and visiting the Pyramids is, of course, seeing the Northern Lights – but what actually are the Northern Lights? Today’s piece aims to answer that exact question.
The Etymology (word history)
The Aurora Borealis is the scientific name for the northern lights. The word Aurora comes from the Roman goddess of the dawn. The word Borealis comes from the ancient Greek word Boreas which meant northern wind. Together it means the Sunrise on the North Wind. There is also a counter version of the northern lights in the southern hemisphere and often seen from Australia or New Zealand. This is called the Aurora Australis for obvious reasons.
The Science (how it works)
Whenever there is a solar flare (eruption from the sun) a solar wind is created which floods throughout our galaxy. The solar wind is charged with highly energised particles and electrons. The aurora is caused by energised particles on the solar winds colliding with atoms high in the earth’s atmosphere. As the electrons in these energised particles collide with oxygen and nitrogen different colours are produced. Green and red lights are caused by collisions with oxygen and blue or purple lights are created when electrons collide with nitrogen. These atoms and particles are especially concentrated around the magnetic poles which is why the best lightshows are to be seen the closer you get to the arctic or Antarctic.
The History and Mythology
In ancient Finnish mythology the aurora were called Revontulet which means Fox Fire and it was believed that a giant fox ran its tail across the sky leaving fire behind. Meanwhile according to the ancient Sammi tribes believed that the lights were caused by the dancing of the souls of their dead ancestors. It is also said that the Vikings believed the lights were caused by the shinning of the magical armour of the Valkyrie – female warrior queens who flew down from Valhalla. The ancient Greeks believed the ‘sky fires’ to be sparks of clashing swords as the titans fought the Gods of Olympus. Our personal favourite myth is that of the Algonquin tribes of North America – they believed that after god finished building the world he set a great fire to keep himself warm at night and that is why we see the aurora!
Photo Credit: Oddur Jónsson
Visit the Northern Lights
We started this piece talking about how the northern lights has become a popular thing to ‘see before you die’ – but how does one go about it? Well there are many ways and places you can see the lights from – if you live in the USA you’ll want to head to Alaska or northern Canada, if however, you live in Europe by far the best place to see the northern lights is to take a tip to Lapland or Finland. Whilst it’s never guaranteed that the lights will show you stand a high chance of seeing them in those places so you’ll probably want to think about booking a trip to the northern lights with a travel agent such as Transun or someone similar.
Well what can we say? The aurora are one of nature’s most beautiful phenomenon – once you’ve seen it you’ll never forget – and pictures on the internet can never do it true justice. So what are you waiting for? Get planning your trip to the northern lights, now!
I am a copywriter and poet with a bachelor’s degree in English Language and Creative Writing. I have worked in various marketing & creative roles since 2001. My aim is to publish at least one novel before I die – so far I have had 2 poems published internationally in print as well as some online. In my professional capacity I currently work for an advertising agency in London.