If you find yourself in northern Sweden during the winter months, there is a very good chance you will step out on a cold, clear night and witness one of nature’s most spectacular and ethereal displays – the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights – a sight that many consider to be the most beautiful thing they have ever seen.
The term is a combination of Aurora, the Roman goddess of the dawn, and Borealis, from the Greek word for North Wind. As the name suggests, the Aurora Borealis is only visible in the northern hemisphere – the southern hemisphere has its own version, the Aurora Australis.
What causes the Northern Lights?
It may look like magic, but there is some relatively simple science behind this unique phenomenon. Charged particles in the Earth’s magnetosphere called ions collide with atoms in the upper atmosphere. Energy from the collisions is emitted as light, which due to the dominance of atomic oxygen tends to be a greenish or dark-red colour. These colours persist for a relatively long period, while the blues and purples caused by molecular nitrogen vary much more quickly.
What does a display look like?
An instance of the aurora may look like a soft, diffuse glow in the nighttime sky or like multi-coloured “curtains” running east to west, each made up of parallel rays aligned with the lines of the Earth’s magnetic field. You may even see a kind of corona of diverging rays if a magnetic line runs directly overhead.
How often do the Northern Lights occur in Sweden?
Auroras occur more frequently near the poles, since the particles needed for the displays are attracted by the Earth’s magnetic field. Displays do in fact occur year-round, but it is in the deep darkness of the northern winter nights that they can be seen most easily and are at their most spectacular. Calm conditions are best, and the most intense part of a display will last between 10 and 30 minutes. In Sweden the most active auroras tend to occur before midnight, and during peak activity displays occur on average every other clear night, perhaps even more frequently.
When is the best time of year to see the Northern Lights in Sweden?
The darkest part of the year, between November and February, when the winter nights are long, offer some of the best chances to see a display, though the Northern Lights can be seen from as early as September until around the middle of April. Not only the time of year, but also the phases of the moon can have a significant impact – the light from a full moon may obscure an otherwise spectacular display. It is important to bear in mind that the Northern Lights are a natural phenomenon and, as such, sightings can never be guaranteed – Lapland is a vast, beautiful wilderness area, and the reasons to travel there during the winter season are many, even if the Aurora does not show itself during your visit. The thrill of reindeer sledding or driving your own dogsled, sleeping in a tipi or mountain cabin, meeting the local Sami and learning about their culture are all wonderful experiences in themselves!
What cultural significance does the Aurora Borealis have in Sweden?
The scientific explanation is of course not the only one, and certainly not the most colourful. Such an other-worldly display has clearly had a profound effect on the culture and folklore of Scandinavia. An old Swedish name for the lights, “sillblixt”, translates as “herring flash”, and it was thought that the display was created by the reflections of huge shoals of herring swimming in the oceans. The Finnish word, “revontulet”, means “fox fires”, and comes from the ancient belief that Lapland was home to fire foxes, whose fur emitted sparks and caused the aurora.
One tale from the Nordic region describes the aurora as light from the fires surrounding the Earth’s oceans reflected in the sky (when the Earth was believed flat and itself surrounded by water). Another says that the sun could throw its rays above the horizon even after sunset, while a third attributed the display to powerful light energy absorbed by glaciers.
The Sami people, the indigenous people of Lapland, believe that when “observed” by the lights, you should be quiet and respectful. In particular, to make jokes or sing about the lights is to invite disaster – the lights may descend from the sky and kill the mocker. Many elderly Sami still remember that, as children, misbehaving during the aurora was very serious indeed. The lights were thought to be inhabited by the spirits of those who had died an early or violent death. Other indigenous peoples of the north, such as the Inuit in Greenland, also believed that the lights were inhabited by the dead – but that the display was caused by the spirits playing football with the skull of a walrus across the nighttime sky.
Further down, in the southern parts of Sweden far from the wild plains of Lapland, the aurora still occurs, though less frequently and usually less intensely. Here the people believed that the lights were caused by the Sami people in the north searching in the mountains for their lost reindeer herds!
How can I see the Northern Lights in Sweden?
Whatever explanation you choose to believe, there is little doubt that for many the Northern Lights are near the top of their “things to see before you die” list, and Sweden is a magnificent area to experience this beautiful sight. Swedish Lapland is a wonderful place to observe the aurora, and though a display can never of course be guaranteed, chances are good during the winter months.
Photo: Nils Torbjorn Nutti
Our Reindeer Sled Safari takes you out into the Lapland mountain wilderness for 6 days in one of the best areas in Sweden to see the Northern Lights, while Experience Lapland gives you an opportunity to try dogsledding, reindeer sledding and snowshoeing in a 4-day multi-activity adventure.
Photo: Peter Grant
Take a moment tonight to stand beneath the stars and imagine yourself wrapped in the enveloping darkness and silence of a winter night in northern Sweden. Picture the cold clear air pricking at your skin, the ground shining from horizon to horizon with reflected light from the snowfields, and all around you the sky filled with a swirling mass of spectral colour.
The skies are darkening, and winter is just around the corner…
The Nature Travels Team
UPDATE JUNE 2009:
In addition to reindeer sledding, we have now added two new dog sledding tours in Lapland giving very good chances to see the Northern Lights as you mush your own team of Siberian Huskies through the Arctic wilderness: