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Chasing ‘dancing lights in the sky’


    The northern lights flash across the sky in Abisko National Park near Kiruna, Sweden.

On a clear January night in northern Sweden, after hours of squinting and wondering if this or that small cloud might be the northern lights, a shimmering, alien-green ribbon unfurled across the sky. Here, on the shore of the frozen Torne River, just outside the village of Kurravaara, there was none of the mysterious clapping or crackling that Finnish researchers have recorded with the mesmerizing spectacle known as the aurora borealis. Instead, the only sound was the joyous yelp of a couple from Shanghai as they bounded out of the neighboring cabin, Huawei camera phone aloft.

In an era when the digital world has winnowed our attention spans, the aurora borealis still demands presence and patience, a long journey to far northern latitudes, and the fortitude to weather arctic conditions. Despite these challenges, color-saturated images of the otherworldly aurora in social and traditional media continue to inspire travelers in growing numbers. And while over-the-top experiences abound — you can charter a bush plane to a remote mountain lodge in Canada, rent a helicopter to fly above the clouds in Iceland, or camp on a glacier in Greenland — the greatest consequence of this tourism boom is the expanding range of aurora-chasing experiences for every type of traveler.

A trend is born

“Ahhhh! Bucket list!” was the first comment my own grainy, overexposed aurora snapshot received on Instagram that night. Indeed, since the phrase “bucket list” entered common usage — around 2007, when the film with the same name came out — seeing the aurora has been a fixture on many of those lists.

Yet, only a decade earlier, the northern lights weren’t even a blip on most travelers’ radar.

“There was no one else doing northern lights tours in the world,” said Masa Ando, a 34-year veteran of the Japanese tourism industry in Alaska who today co-owns HAI Shirokuma Tours. In the 1980s and ’90s, he said, locals didn’t understand the fuss when Japanese tourists began arriving in Fairbanks. “They were questioning, ‘Why are they coming to see northern lights?’ ‘What’s special about this?’”

From those trailblazing Japanese groups, the northern lights as tourist attraction gained momentum around the globe.

“It’s become a must-do thing in life to see the northern lights,” said Arne Bergh, an owner and creative director of the Icehotel in Kiruna, Sweden, where every winter aurora hopefuls chase the phenomenon he called “nature’s own fireworks” before retiring to their subzero ice rooms.

In Alaska, the number of winter visitors last year surpassed 320,000, an increase of 33 percent from a decade earlier, according to the Alaska Travel Industry Association, which credits most of that tourism to the aurora. In Canada’s Northwest Territories, meanwhile, the remote capital of Yellowknife has marketed itself as a top northern lights destination, particularly to travelers in Asia. According to a report from the government of the NWT, the number of aurora tourists more than quadrupled over the last six years — a trend evident even in the food scene of Yellowknife, population around 20,000.

“We’ve seen the addition of a Korean restaurant, a Japanese bakery and a Chinese hot pot restaurant,” said Cathie Bolstad, chief executive of Northwest Territories Tourism.

The same government report estimated that last season those tourists spent over $40 million.

Beyond North America, the interest in northern lights travel has spurred improved tourism infrastructure across the arctic region, from northern Russia to Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Greenland.

“As soon as you get above the polar circle, you can see the aurora very likely,” explained Trond Trondsen, an aurora expert in Calgary. A native of Tromso, Norway, Trondsen grew up fascinated by the mysterious lights he often saw walking home from school, and later earned a doctorate in cosmic geophysics with a focus on auroral imaging. Today he runs a private company designing instrumentation for aurora researchers.

Although anyone can summon dazzling videos on a digital screen, he insists there’s no substitute for seeing the phenomenon in person.

“It’s so hard to paint a picture of the overwhelming emotional impact that it has,” he said. “I would call it dancing lights in the sky. There’s a rhythm to it. There’s a color scheme to it. It’s almost like heavenly visual music.”

Blinded by science

Before embarking on my own aurora hunt in northern Sweden, I wanted to understand what, exactly, it was I was searching for in the dark arctic sky.

“The aurora is a manifestation of what we call space weather,” Trondsen explained the day before my flight departed from Stockholm for Kiruna. “It all starts at the sun.”

As the sun’s magnetic field becomes stronger and weaker, it can become unstable, resulting in solar flares and what’s called a coronal mass ejection. “Basically the sun burps a piece of itself into space,” he said. “And these are particles — electrons, as well as a piece of its own magnetic field.”

These particles blow into space and some reach Earth. Our magnetic field eventually draws the particles toward the North and South Poles, where they may enter the atmosphere.

“It’s when these electrons hit our atmosphere that you get the aurora,” he continued, comparing the effect to old phosphor-coated television screens bombarded by electron beams from behind. The region in which the lights appear — the auroral oval — rings both geomagnetic poles.

“The earth rotates us in under the aurora at midnight, or around midnight our local time,” he continued, explaining prime aurora-chasing time. As for the characteristic colors, he said, “that’s indicative of what altitude the reaction happens at, and which gas the electron hits. For example, if it hits oxygen, you get green and red typically. If it hits nitrogen, you get blue light.”

The town aurora borealis built

“What usually limits the ability to see aurora is clouds,” explained Urban Braendstroem, an aurora researcher at the Swedish Institute for Space Physics in Kiruna, in an email. “Abisko has the most clear nights in Sweden due to meteorological conditions caused by the surrounding mountains.”

Abisko is a village roughly 125 miles north of the Arctic Circle with a population hovering around the same number. The rural area was primarily a destination among Swedes for late-winter skiing and summer hiking when Chad and Linnea Blakley arrived in 2008 to work at the local mountain lodge, STF Abisko Fjallstation, where I met with the couple in a quiet room above the bustling, hostel-like lobby.

“This is hard to believe, but at the time, there was really not any northern lights tourism to speak of in Abisko,” said Chad Blakley, a Missouri native. Inspired by the aurora, he began photographing the phenomenon and developed a following online for his dramatic images. In 2010, the couple started Lights over Lapland, a photography tour company, and today they employ 21 people in Abisko. “It went from a backwater with really no tourism infrastructure at all to one of the leading aurora destinations on the planet in a decade,” he said. In 2017, the lodge reported 30,000 international guest nights.

Today groups of tourists dressed in puffy coveralls and insulated boots toddle around Abisko — a modest cluster of houses along one main road with no traffic light — snapping photos while posing beside locals’ snowmobiles and pet huskies.

According to Louise Johansson, the communications coordinator at the mountain lodge, which is run by the Swedish Tourist Association, the winter months now draw more visitors than the summer season. Just a few years ago, the opposite was true. In January 2018 alone, the lodge hosted guests of 42 different nationalities.

Many come for the nearby Aurora Sky Station, a mountaintop-viewing platform reached by a two-seater chair lift built in 1966, where on a recent night, fellow visitors hailed from India, Bolivia, South Korea, France, England and Australia.

“Tonight it does show cloud cover,” Blakley said, reviewing the evening’s forecast before my visit to the Sky Station, “but I’d bet you a dollar that you’ll still see the lights if you’re out there all night.”

He owes me a buck.

Atop Mount Nuolja, the Aurora Sky Station delivered dramatic views of the glittering town below, situated in a valley beside a black-as-coal lake. But overhead there were only clouds, heavy and wet, accompanied by an arctic wind whipping up shards of ice and snow. A few foolhardy aurora-chasers knelt beside camera tripods staked in the snow, while wiser souls huddled near the mountain hut for a modicum of warmth or retreated to the mediocre cafe within. Lying on my back in the snow, staring fruitlessly for hours at grayscale clouds, the hunt for the northern lights felt like a farce.

Aurora adventures

Since auroras can be elusive, travelers are wise to incorporate activities into the hours-long night-sky vigil. Around Kiruna in northern Sweden, for example, most traditional winter pastimes have been adapted to the aurora hunt.

Kerstin Nilsson, who together with her husband runs Ofelas, an Icelandic horse-riding business on a farm outside Kiruna, created one of the first such pairings when they began nighttime aurora-on-horseback tours in 1997.

Today you can also hunt aurora on sleigh-rides and snowshoe tours, chase the lights aboard roaring snowmobiles or on sleds pulled by huskies sailing across frozen lakes. Even when the lights don’t come out to play, I can confirm that it’s an unforgettable rush to bump along forest trails behind a pack of dogs that seems deaf to the musher’s cries.

Or supplement the northern lights with a cultural excursion for an introduction to Sapmi, the traditional land of the indigenous Sami people and their roaming reindeer herds.

In 2012, two Sami photographers, Anette Niia and Ylva Sarri, founded Scandinavian Photoadventures, which offers aurora-focused wilderness tours, photo expeditions and cultural experiences flavored by songs and stories that have been passed down through generations.

“The Sami culture is a storytelling culture because you had nothing else,” Niia said. “No internet, no books, no texts, nothing. You were alone with a fire in the forest together with your family.”

Many Sami were fearful of the northern lights, Sarri explained, and believed the aurora was a sacred manifestation of their ancestors’ souls. Both women said they’d been warned as children about taunting the lights.

“Me and my sister, we used to go out and tease the northern lights all the time,” Niia recalled, laughing. “It was so thrilling. And when it started to move, then we got really scared and ran home.”

The slow road

Love the idea of the lights but not the freezing cold? An increasing number of arctic lodging options promise views of the night sky from bed, ranging from innovative bubble tents to glass-ceiling huts.

After the fruitless night I spent shivering on the mountaintop in Abisko, it felt luxurious to look for the lights from inside a SkyNest, one of two cozy, lemming-shaped cabins with transparent walls and ceilings in rural Kurravaara. Admittedly, most aurora watching occurred not from bed, but outside where no branches obstructed the awe-inspiring tableau. Inside, with my toes on a space heater, I could survey the sky, and whenever a vague shimmer appeared through the window, pull on my boots and coat, and crunch through the snow onto the frozen river. Sometimes the gleam faded quickly, but just as often it crescendoed into a turbulent chaotic flow, wisps of green and pink twirling across the night sky. And when the humbling show eventually dissolved into nothingness, mere minutes after it had begun, only a dozen steps returned me to the warmth of the cabin.

Many cruise lines now also pursue the aurora. Hurtigruten guarantees that passengers on its 12-day Astronomy Voyage along the Norwegian coast will see the lights. If not, the next cruise is free.

And last month, Viking Cruises inaugurated a new 13-day sailing to northern Norway, called “In Search of the Northern Lights,” which bills itself as the first full-length winter itinerary in the Arctic from an American cruise line. According to the company, all six sailings in 2019 sold out.

“People are more after experiences now,” said Torstein Hagen, the chairman of Viking Cruises. “It’s experience rather than indulgence.”

Favorable forecasts

Riding in an eight-seat minivan for hours with a group of strangers may not be the sexiest way to chase the aurora, but many knowledgeable guides are ready to turn the back seat into a classroom for travelers with high hopes but little time.

“I see the aurora somewhere between 90 to 95 percent of the time every day we have tours,” said Torsten Aslaksen, a guide in Tromso, Norway, who drives tourists between August and April, a season several weeks longer than most operators.

“I’m an aurora professor, and I have a long-term interest in astronomy,” said Aslaksen, who pivoted to guiding tours in 2016. “I also have a background as a weather forecaster,” he added. “So all of these things are kind of nice to have when you’re out there with your tourists.”

Every tour operator with skin in the game claims that his location is the best for aurora viewing, and Aslaksen is no exception. He notes Tromso’s proximity to the magnetic pole, its well-established infrastructure and varied landscape.

“The mountains are able to make different weather zones,” he said. “So when we have clouds on the coast, we can drive inland and find clear skies.”

Then it’s just a matter of waiting for the cosmic show.

“It can be so bright it will cast shadows on the ground,” Aslaksen said. “You can read a book from the light from only the aurora when this happens.”

But generally, the brightest, most powerful aurora — what Chad Blakley called a “come-to-Jesus aurora” — are less common right now.

“The sun gets more active and less active in an 11-year cycle approximately,” explained Trondsen, the aurora expert. “And right now we’re in the dump.”

But that doesn’t mean travelers should postpone a trip until the cycle’s peak, the so-called solar maximum, which is several years away.

“In the meantime, we will have coronal mass ejections, we will have solar flares, so there will be aurora,” Trondsen said, “just not as frequent.”

“But I fully expect that in four or five years, it will blow our minds,” he added. “Fingers crossed anyway.”

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