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5 Things to consider when you’re Aurora Chasing

1. It is not the only beautiful arctic phenomenon

Whilst the silent dancing clouds of a green and purple aurora are spectacular at night, the northern lights are not the only thing you should keep your eyes peeled for whilst travelling through the Arctic.

Freezing daytime temperatures provide the perfect conditions for atmospheric phenomena that are equally interesting - including diamond dust. Stepping off the iron-ore train in Kiruna and into -40C, my tour group found themselves in, what felt like the movie set of Cinderella. Tiny gold-glinting flecks of ice crystals, catching the moisture in the air, surrounded us like magic. So small you couldn’t touch them, but you could feel them hit your lungs with each breath.

In equally cold conditions, it is not uncommon to see halos. Keep your eyes to the sky and search for smears of strange clouds. Like rainbows, sundogs, parhelia, super-lateral arcs and sun pillars are all reflecting the presence of moisture in the air through the suns rays. Some sundogs are so bright, they can appear like three suns setting in the west!

2. The best way to study the aurora is to wear a fez

Ok, so this may not be true for everyone, but it certainly seemed the preferred method for the scientist, inventor and Norwegian-born hero - Kristian Birkeland. The seven-time Nobel Prize nominated, hat-wearing scientist, effectively discovered the mechanism creating the Aurora, funding his research with his development of artificial fertilizer.

In the early 1900’s Birkeland based himself in Halde Observatory, a cold and drafty stone building in the arctic circle on the top of a mountain near Alta. From this vantage point, he directed a small team, and developed the theory that the aurora was caused from electrons thrust from sunspots directed to the Earth and guided to polar regions by the geomagnetic field.

Despite being able to replicate this with a Terrella (little earth), he was ridiculed by mainstream scientists and his theory was dismissed by astrophysicists. However, in 1967, 50 years after his death, a US Navy probe proved his theory correct. Utilising a magnetometer disturbances were observed on nearly every pass in the ionosphere, over the high-latitude regions of the Earth.

As a tribute to this mans work, Birkeland’s face adorned the Norwegian 200 Kroner note from 1994 – 2017.

3. Steve

A what. Not a who.

The new problem confounding atmospheric scientists studying the aurora, is STEVE. While the aurora is moving thanks to charged particles dancing around the sky, STEVE remains relatively stationery. Dubbed STEVE - Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement – by the sky-watching scientists, we know little about it other than that it is distinctly different from aurora.

Amateur astronomers and astro-photographers have known about it for decades, but the professional scientific community, who have only recently started paying attention to it remain perplexed by the spectacular.

One theory is that it is a SAID, or Sub Auroral Ion Drift. This is a supersonic stream of charged particles sometimes formed during auroral displays, but these have never been seen with the naked eye before. In addition to not being visible, scientists note temperature spikes and particle speeds higher and faster than those ever before observed with a SAID when it comes to STEVE.

Despite the number of scientists, aurora watchers and bucket-list travellers who look skywards for answers, STEVE highlights that we still have much to learn about our heavenly and earthly interactions.

4. Don’t wave your hanky

The Sami word for aurora borealis is “guovssahas”, meaning “the light you can hear”. Whilst scientists dispute the aurora is audible, the 2,800 Sámi reindeer herders that live through the ill-defined arctic area of Sapmi, disagree. For eons these people living in an area that spans Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Russian Kola Peninsula have strongly upheld their traditions and watched the aurora with trepidation.

Every Sami child knows the rhyme about the aurora, but never dare to say it out loud. On the first signs of an aurora, they are told to quiet down, stay inside and, perhaps, give their parents some peace. But for whatever reason, the story of the aurora is deeply ingrained in the Sami traditions. Don’t disrespect it, don’t mock or tease it, and whatever you do, don’t draw attention to yourself, whistle or wave at it.

So, what happens if you do? … Bad fortune will come your way. So much so, that if you’re really naughty the lights could sweep down and beat you to death!

5. Hygge

Whilst the word, Hygge (pronounced hug-uh) doesn’t truly have an English translation, the notion still managed to spread like wildfire through global homeware stores not that long ago. The word meaning to give courage, comfort or joy comes from the Danish word 'hyggja' meaning to think in Old Norse.

Whichever way you look at it though, the Scandinavians – Finns, Norwegian, Danish and Swedish - take it very seriously. Creating a mood of coziness and conviviality is a cultural pastime, with Norwegians investing more time and money on interior decorations than almost any other nation, with families completely redecorating their home every few years. (It is said that if it was an Olympic sport, Norwegians would be gold medalists!)

So why do they do it?

Story has it that it started during the second world war when Norway was infiltrated by German soldiers. Displaying candles in the windows meant you were a place of refuge for fleeing civilians and soldiers and that you would welcome strangers into your home.

To this day, businesses and homes are adorned with a warm inviting candle glow as you drive through the dark, wintery countryside. A very welcoming sight on a cold arctic night!

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