By Kristofer Jäntti
The Northern Lights are a curiosity, especially in the northern countries of the Baltic Sea Region. Their beauty captivates the imagination, and for many, including this author, the prospect of seeing one remains an unrealised dream.
However, their presence has not gone unnoticed by the ancients – the earliest cave paintings in Southern France date to 30,000 years ago. Indeed, they had a prominent role in the mythologies of many cultures situated close to the Arctic Circle. For example, in Finland the Northern Lights were believed to originate from a ‘fire fox’ that would run in the North and touch mountains in so that the sparks they caused would become Northern Lights. It is from this tale that the Finnish term for Nothern Lights, ‘revontulet’, originates from, as ‘repo’ is another word for a fox. In Estonia, on the other hand, it was believed that water jets created by whales were responsible for them.
The current scientific explanation for their occurrence (in both poles) is the fact that electrically charged particles, protons and electrons, from solar winds penetrate the earth’s atmosphere, guided by the earth’s magnetic field, and collide with atoms like oxygen and nitrogen, which are then “excited”. As a result, the particles release this extra energy as light. This process can be illustrated as follows: a little kid kicks you, which hurts and results perhaps in extra adrenaline. Instead of kicking the kid back you ‘release’ a gasp of pain.
The best places to see northern lights in the Baltic region are in the northern parts of the Nordic countries, and the best time is around the ‘magnetic midnight’ – around a half-hour before regular midnight. They occur all year round, but due to the bright Baltic summers they are only really seen in the darker time of year, from August to April. Statistically, in Finland, the best place to see them would be in Sodankylä, which is situated in the very north where one would expect to see them twice in a weeklong trip in the winter; in Helsinki it would only be around twenty nights and in northern Germany only a couple of nights a year.
That said, the best place to see them for most people would be on YouTube:
Kristofer Jäntti is a member of Crossing the Baltic’s editorial board. He is presently completing a postgraduate programme at the London School of Economics. His interests include nationalism, national identity formation, migration, Finnish Politics, food, as well as natural history.