The Northern Lights

The Northern Lights – also called Aurora Borealis – are one of the most spectacular shows on earth and can frequently be seen in Akureyri and surroundings from September through April on clear and crisp nights. The area surrounding Akureyri is especially good for Northern Lights viewing, due to the high mountains on both sides of the fjord, who affect the cloud cover positively, leading to frequent holes in the clouds – that are essential for actually seeing the elusive lights!

What causes this spectacular phenomenon, so characteristic of our northern lights here in Iceland? Well, it’s electricity that does it – and of course it all goes back to the sun. Tiny particles, protons and electrons caused by electronic storms on the sun (solar wind) are trapped in the earth’s magnetic field and the begin to spiral back and forth along the magnetic lines of force – circle around the magnetic pole, so to speak. While rushing around endlessly in their magnetic trap, some particles escape into the earth’s atmosphere. They begin to hit molecules in the atmosphere and these impacts cause the molecules to glow, thus creating the auroras.

White and green are usually the dominant colours but sometimes there are considerable colour variations, as the pressure and composition of the atmosphere varies at different altitudes. At extremely high altitudes where the pressure is low, there tends to be a reddish glow produced by oxygen molecules when they are struck by the tiny particles of the solar wind. At lower altitudes, where there is higher pressure, their impact-irritated oxygen molecules may glow with a greenish tinge and sometimes there is a reddish lower border created by particles colliding with nitrogen molecules in the immediate vicinity.

The phenomenon is easily explained by modern science. What our ancestors may have thought when they gazed into the brightly-lit winter sky is quite another matter. But by all means don’t let any scientific explanation spoil your appreciation of the beauty of the Northern Lights. They are a truly impressive spectacle, whatever their cause.

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