In recent years, heading off on a Northern Lights holiday has become one of the most popular ways of spending a winter break. A source of perennial fascination and wonder for travellers to the Arctic, the Aurora Borealis became that much more appealing once specialised companies began putting together packages that enabled visitors from other latitudes to experience this phenomenon first-hand. Currently, itineraries to destinations such as Sweden or Iceland are among the most sought after ‘bucket list’ holidays.
But while embarking on one of these breaks as a complete neophyte can have its charm, travellers who embark on their Northern Lights holiday with some knowledge of the scientific and natural factors surrounding the phenomenon can derive even more enjoyment from their experience to Arctic latitudes. Explained below are three of the technical terms surrounding the phenomenon of the Aurora Borealis.
The first useful term to be familiar with is sunspot. This refers to certain areas of the sun, visible to the naked eye without the aid of a telescope, which normally appear as dark spots on its surface. These are areas of reduced magnetic pressure, presenting in lower temperatures than those experienced on other areas of the sun. They lead to the occurrence of another important phenomenon impacting the appearance of Northern Lights – the solar winds.
Solar winds are constant streams of electrons and ions emitted from the sun, which disturb the gaseous imbalance of the Earth’s atmosphere when they hit the surface of the planet. These winds can drag the Aurora Borealis away from the very north and south poles’ magnetism, so it can be seen elsewhere and not just at the poles.
Solar winds are also partially responsible for the different colours of the Aurora Borealis, which vary depending on the temperature and density of the atmosphere in which the light show takes place. Those lucky enough to witness an aurora on their Northern Lights holiday can expect to see colours ranging from green to yellow, red, and multiple shades of purple.
Auroral intensity simply refers to the strength and visibility of the Northern Lights. A weak aurora will be approximately as bright as the Milky Way when viewed through appropriate equipment, while a medium aurora will shine brighter than most stars. Anyone fortunate to witness what’s termed a strong aurora can expect a brightness level equivalent to moonlight, which from up close would be 100 to 1000 times stronger than the weakest observable light.
Equipped with knowledge of these basic terms, anyone embarking on a Northern Lights holiday will better understand the sequence of natural events behind the light show. Knowing a little of the science behind the lights will take the experience to a dimension beyond mere aesthetic beauty.
Kevin Collins is director of Aurora Nights, who offer a select range of trips to see the Northern Lights. For a Northern Lights holiday, Iceland and Swedish Lapland offer an excellent chance to encounter the Aurora Borealis. Aurora Nights is part of Weekend a la Carte, a family-run company passionate about client service, with a vast in-depth knowledge based on extensive travels to region of the Aurora Borealis.
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