northern lights
The La Recherche

northern lights
Harald Moltke

Fridtjof Nansen

northern lights
Harald Moltke
The Northern Lights

The word "Nordrljos", or the northern lights, is mentioned for the first time in the Norwegian Kongespeilet (c. 1250). It's author had heard about the northern lights from fellow countrymen who went to Greenland. The luminescent glow of the northern lights must have been a beautiful light by which to find one's way across the sea. In Nordic mythology, the celestial bridge, "Bifrost", is mentioned as the link between not only Earth and the home of the gods but between life and death, as well. Such a notion may have been prompted by the northern lights and, even in popular belief, this phenomenon has always been associated with death. People believed in the ability to contact the dead through the arc of the northern lights that stretches across the sky. A remnant of this belief may still be observed among northern-Norwegian children when they can be caught waving white cloth at the northern lights, in sheer defiance of this sight.

Naturally, the northern lights have inspired both artists and travelers - once they have seen it. The summer, however, is the usual time of year for journeys to the North, and this is also why most visitors have not seen the northern lights. The active periods of the northern lights vary, too, and may differ in time with solar activities. Sunspot activities have been at low occurrences for long periods of time and, as a result, observations of the northern lights have been correspondingly few. This is the reason why we do not find mention made of the northern lights in well-known depections of northern Norway during the 17th-century. But Fridtjof Nansen spent numerous winter nights under a canopy of blazing northern lights.

Today Norway may be regarded as "the temperate land of the northern lights" since our climate is the mildest of all arctic locations where it is possible to see the northern lights. One should travel to Norway when wishing to experience the northern lights, without having to prepare for the most severe climatic conditions. The northern lights can be observed now between September and April - if the weather permits.

The northern lights come into being when electrically charged particles, such as electrons and protons, speed into the earth's upper atmoshpere along paths created by the magnetic fields. When these particles descend to atmospheric heights of approximately 100 kilometers, they collide with gas particles in the upper atmospheric layer of air. A myriad of luminescent gleams arises as billions of collisions occur, and the northern lights materialize in all their resplendent colors.

A collection of northern lights pictures


   © University Library of Tromsø - 1999.
The Northern Lights Route is part of The Council of Europe Cultural Routes. The Cultural Routes are an invitation to Europeans to wander the paths and explore the places where the unity and diversity of our European identity were forged.