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The Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis): frequently asked questions

Frequently asked questions about the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis), including the facts, history and science behind nature's greatest phenomenon.

The Northern Lights
The Northern Lights: nature's most spectacular phenomena

Of all the natural phenomena the world has to offer its inhabitants, the Northern Lights are probably the most spectacular - not least because to glimpse them you need to be in the perfect place at the perfect time. 

To find out more about the Northern Lights and how to stand before them, we’ve thrown together a list of things you should know before you set off on tours in search of the Aurora Borealis.

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What did the vikings make of the Northern Lightss?

The Northern Lights were once known to the Vikings as the battle charge of the Valkyries; Norse mythical figures who oversee battle, deciding who lives and who dies. 

Their armour was said to shimmer in the darkness and create the colours of the Aurora Borealis.

Why are the Northern Lights called Aurora Borealis?

Pierre Gassendi was a 17th century French scientist who coined the name Aurora Borealis. With Aurora stemming from the Roman Goddess of dawn, and Borealis comes from the Greek word boreas for the north wind.

What causes the Aurora Borealis?

The science behind the phenomenon is less romantic than the Norse mythological version, but no less fascinating. 

The Northern Lights are produced when solar wind, which is made up of charged particles from our sun, interacts with our atmosphere. The charged particles make the gases in our atmosphere glow, like a florescent tube light. 

The colour depends on which gas in our atmosphere the particles collide with, with oxygen creating the yellow-green colour and nitrogen creating the crimson.

Where can I see the Northern Lights?

The earth’s magnetic field diverts the solar wind to our poles which is why the phenomenon only happens in the high north, or far south (called Aurora Australis). 

Up in the northern hemisphere though, Alaska and Canada are good viewing spots, but in Europe, you must to head to Iceland or Scandinavia, with Norway being the best and most popular place to see them.

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How can I see the Northern Lights?

The easiest way to see this spectacular natural phenomenon is to book a cruise to Norway and Scandinavia. The itineraries of a Scandinavian cruises usually include sailing past the arctic circle into Svalbard or Tromsø. 

One of the largest advantages of this is that being at sea in this part of the world can give you almost uninterrupted views of this wonderful natural light show, and your opportunities to actually glimpse the Aurora Borealis are better if you like to sit out on the deck of your ship with a hot chocolate enjoying the view.

If you’ve always wanted to see the Northern Lights, and are considering a cruise into the wonders of the arctic circle, then Saga can help you make your dream tangible with our many cruises up to this region of the world. Contact us today for details.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.