Why Auroras Are Like Magic

I recently ventured north of the Arctic Circle in the middle of winter. As you can probably tell from the title of this post, it wasn’t just because I wanted to frolic in the snow, ride husky sleds and marvel at the rare appearances of the sun (though I enjoyed doing all of these things), but because I wanted to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights, which are more likely to be spied during the darkness of long winter nights.

Incredible videos like this one – a time-lapse of images taken from the International Space Station – had whet my appetite for auroras:

Of course, during my stay in Lapland (in northern Finland on the shores of lake Inari) I didn’t see a full sky of dazzling auroras like those captured from the ISS, but I was treated to some beautiful shifting green threads on a clear night, and more distant displays that were bright enough to be visible even on overcast nights.

The aurora borealis has always seemed magical and not-quite-real to me, but funnily enough, seeing it with my own eyes only made that feeling stronger, so I thought I’d do a short post listing some reasons (five, to be exact) why auroras remind me of magic – and in the process, attempt to explain what it’s like to see them.

Half the Time You Think You’re Imagining Them

When searching the night sky for a glimpse of an aurora, it’s very easy to imagine things. You see the light reflected from a nearby town, or the flash of distant headlights, or a ghostly after-imprint on your retinas, and you wonder: is that an aurora? You can be staring at something thinking, “Is that one? No, it’s not. It’s probably just an artificial light or my imagination or… no wait, it’s getting brighter, it’s moving… wow, it’s green!” – and you realise you were looking at an aurora the whole time. Of course, sometimes it really is just the glow of a street lamp.

Afterward, You Might Doubt What You’ve Seen

Because auroras can vanish so quickly, or peter out slowly to something that looks less like an aurora and more like a trick of the eye, I often found myself turning to people around me to confirm they’d seen the same thing I had. Even now I’m kind of worried someone will pop up and say: “Those weren’t auroras, silly! That was just the nightly display of the Great Northern Lake Light House,” even though I know it couldn’t have been anything else, and the displays were an obvious aurora green.

The Colours Are Eerie and Magical

I’m not used to seeing green or magenta light in the natural world, so it’s very strange to see these colours dancing across the sky. I only saw green auroras, but that alien tinge on the horizon at night was quite an eerie, creepy sight. I can easily imagine early humans coming up with all sorts of fantastical explanations for it. What’s more, in fiction green light is often used for flowing magic, bubbling potions and hovering UFOs, so it comes with all of those associations.

The Scientific Explanation Can Be Hard to Grasp

I’ve read explanations of what causes the Northern and Southern Lights, but I always struggle to understand and remember the finer details. Sure, the general concept is easy to grasp: solar winds from the sun hit the earth’s magnetic field, sending charged particles into the earth’s atmosphere near the poles. These particles excite gas molecules and create light. Articles like this one on the BBC provide a good basic explanation with diagrams… but to understand how it works on a micro level with regard to solar winds, magnetic lines, particles and ionization, is not easy (e.g. I had trouble following this more detailed Wikipedia explanation).

They Are a Reminder of Our Forcefield

One of the amazing things about auroras is they are evidence of our planet’s magnetic field, and how it prevents a lot of harmful solar radiation from reaching us. Like the forcefield of a spaceship or a magician, it deflects incoming particles in arcs of brilliant colour. This GIF does a good job of showing what it looks like when a blast of solar wind hits earth’s magnetosphere (earth is the black dot). I can’t help but feel there’s something magical and poetic about that.

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So that’s why I think gazing at auroras feels a lot like glimpsing something from a science fiction or fantasy story. Although I saw them several times, each time it only made me more hopeful that I might glimpse yet bigger and brighter ones… so who knows, maybe one day I’ll find an excuse to go hunting for them again.

Have you seen an aurora? Was your experience similar or different to mine? Let me know in the comments.

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25 thoughts on “Why Auroras Are Like Magic

    • You should definitely make the trip! It had been a dream of mine for a long time too and it was great to finally make it happen. Obviously there’s no guarantee of seeing them, but you can maximise your chances by staying several nights and going at the right time of year. The place we stayed at also offered ‘alert phones’ to notify you if one of the staff spotted an aurora. That was very useful!

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  1. Wonderful post. I am glad that You visited Finland and it Lapland. Auroras are incredible and I have not seen them. Sigh. Last Saturday, I visited in Oulu for the second time reindeer race, which is open for everybody. It was awesome happening and next winter, I will participate in it. This happening is unique in the whole world! Couple weeks ago we checked world’s biggest snow castle in Kemi.

    Happy and safe travels!

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    • Thanks! I really enjoyed visiting Finland and meeting Finnish people (I visited Helsinki too) – the language and culture were very new to me, and the wilderness in Lapland was spectacular.

      Reindeer racing sounds like fun! I visited a reindeer farm when I was there but of course I didn’t see them do any racing, only eating 🙂

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      • Hi Nicola.

        Thank you. Helsinki is my hometown. In summer, it offers much to see and its environment. Finnish is actually one of the most difficult language in the world. We love Lapland and in fall, it is awesome to hike on Arctic hills among roaming reindeers.

        In the town called Oulu, there is:

        Reindeer driving competition.

        Oulu is the only place in Finland and in the world where this competition is held! I will post next week’s Wednesday a new post about this incredible race with more spectacular photos.

        Happy and safe travels.

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  2. Oh gosh- first off- I LOVE YOUR NEW LOOK!! (sorry if it’s been there a while and I’ve only just noticed- either way it’s very cool!!) Secondly, these pictures are BEAUTIFUL!!! It’s so cool that you got to see the northern lights- and it sounds like you had a really cool trip!!

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  3. When I was a child, living out on a farm in NSW, I was privileged to see an Aurora Australis. Back then, I didn’t understand how rare an event it was that I was seeing (especially how far north we were located), but I’m glad I got to experience it.

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    • Wow, amazing you saw it that far north! There must have been a big solar flare/storm, I think that’s when they show further north or south than usual. I’m Australian but I don’t know anyone who’s seen the Aurora Australis – that’s very cool!

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      • Haha, no worries! We stayed in a very small town called Nellim (which largely consists of the hotel we stayed at – nice and remote). It was hard to decide where in Scandinavia to go because you can do aurora holidays like this all over and we’d never been before. But in the end Finland just seemed the most out of the ordinary (we didn’t know any Finnish people or much about the country so we were curious), plus the hotel package was great and of course Lapland has a magical reputation! I’d love to go to Norway or Sweden one day too though.

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  4. I stayed for a week in Iceland back in December with no sign of the Aurora Borealis. I swear we spent a day in those buses driving around the place in search for those elusive lights! Actually it was in search of a patch of clear sky. No snow either if you can believe that. December, Iceland, no snow!? The people there were all a bit baffled by it. Hottest winter on record apparently. No aurora, no snow, but plenty of rain and overcast skies though. 😦 Oh well I’ll just have to try another vantage point. Finland sounds exciting 😉

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    • Oh no that sucks – also crazy there was no snow in Iceland in December!! Overcast skies are definitely the enemy of aurora hunters, I only saw a really clear/close one on the night when it wasn’t too cloudy (and also not when we went out driving to look for them, which was a bit annoying!). Well, I guess now at least you have an excuse to try another vantage point as you said… I can recommend Finland 🙂

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  5. I’ve never seen one but I really, really want to and hope I can make to Iceland early next year to make my wish a reality. I didn’t know that they go out after a while. I’ve always assumed that they’re always there.

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    • I really want to go to Iceland one day too – I hope you make it there, and that you see them! And sadly they can appear and disappear in a matter of minutes – sometimes you are lucky though and have long displays where they hang around for a few hours. Guess it all depends on solar activity (which, unfortunately, is pretty much impossible to predict!)

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