The Northern Lights

  • 09th December 2013

One of the most amazing sights on Earth, the Northern Lights or aurora borealis, occur over the poles in a dazzling, dramatic display of nature at her most awesome. But, really, what are they?

The Name

Well, northern lights is pretty self-evident, but its proper, grown-up name is aurora borealis. The vivid effect of lights dancing across the winter night sky was given the moniker in 1621 by French philosopher (priest/scientist/astronomer/mathematician/nightsky fan) Pierre Gassendi. He stuck the Roman goddess of dawn (Aurora) to the Greek name for the north wind, Boreas. Just in case you’re ever asked.

The Science Bit

The glorious natural disco is actually energetic charged particles colliding with atoms high in the atmosphere. The waves and movement is the effect of the Earth’s magnetic field. The colours depend on the type of gas particles that are colliding. The pale yellow-green, is oxygen, around 50 miles above the ground, the less-common all-red auroras are higher altitude oxygen, around 200 miles. Blue/purplish-red is more likely to be nitrogen.
The lights can be 50 miles across and up to (get this) 400 miles above the ground

The ‘Northern’ Lights

Well… not always northern as you can see them in the southern hemisphere – they appear in a ragged oval over the North and South Pole. If you’re in the south they’re referred to as ‘Aurora australis’. And – get this – they mirror each other in north and south at the same time with similar colours and shapes. Awesome.

The Legends

In medieval times, the lights were thought to mean war or famine was on its way. This wasn’t true though. In New Zealand the Maoris thought it was the reflections of their campfires, while native Americans said they pointed out where giants were. In Alaska, the Inuit believed they were the spirits of animals they had hunted. Actually none of these were true (see the Science Bit).

The Time To Watch

The lights can appear between the autumn equinox and spring equinox (21 September – 21 March) when it’s dark between 6pm and 1am. The weather also needs to be right though. Clear skies are favourable.

The How You Get To See Them Bit

You’ll be needing a flight to Norway. You can book a trip with bmi regional, we fly five times a week from Stavanger (Southern Norway) to Tromso, the ideal place to spot the Northern Lights. Fares start from NOK 1,000 (approx £102) one-way including taxes and charges. Visit for more information.