Alta, the northern lights city

Chasing an Arctic diva through the skies


Photo: Ahnjo / Wikimedia Commons
The aurora borealis lights up the skies in shades of blue and green above Lillevannet in Alta, the “northern lights city” in northern Norway.


To experience the starry, limitless sky, and the unbelievable colors that move across the Arctic sky, few places on earth offer more ways to witness the northern lights than Norway, and Alta bills itself as “the northern lights city.”

Between late September and late March, northern Norway is dark, from early afternoon until late morning, and the northern lights frequently soar across the sky. The locals’ bold claim is that this part of Norway, with its multiple islands, deep fjords, and steep mountains, is among the most beautiful and interesting places to see the northern lights.

As hundreds of thousands of people live in this huge geographical area, the region of northern Norway has everything from cities with a lively night scene and great museums to small fishing villages and vast, tranquil spaces without light pollution.

So, what are the northern lights? On a very basic level, the phenomenon is quite simple to explain. It is created from a collision between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter Earth’s atmosphere.

The lights, which are also called aurora borealis, show up at night when the sky is dark. It’s like a celestial ballet of light dancing across the night sky, with a color palette of green, blue, and sometimes even pink and violet. 

But even though you can’t take the lights for granted—it is, after all, a natural phenomenon, just like the weather—you are still guaranteed to experience magical light in northern Norway all through the polar night. On clear days, you can see beautiful sunset colors in the south, while the sky to the north is a deep midnight blue. In “the blue hour” at twilight, the snowy landscape is bathed in a glassy, deep blue color. And even if the auroras don’t dance, experiencing the starry, limitless sky can make you reconnect with the universe.

The aurora borealis can be seen when the sky is clear and dark, and the optimal conditions are usually when the weather is cold and dry. Then, you just have to cross your fingers for a sun storm, sending out some magical particles in your direction.

Alta norway

Photo: Stefan Dahlqvist / NordNorge
A pair of husky dogs strikes an imposing profile against the dramatic winter skies of northern Norway. The aurora borealis is best seen there between late September and late March.

Facts and fiction about the northern lights

Many are fascinated by the aurora borealis, but few know the science and myths related to the natural light show in the sky.

When the aurora borealis is explained by advanced physicists who specialize in the field of magnetohydrodynamics, it can be hard to see the link to the lights that dance spontaneously and wildly above your head.

But the phenomenon can also be explained in a tangible way: we have the sun to thank for everything, also the auroras, and during large solar explosions and flares, huge quantities of particles are thrown out from the sun and into deep space.

The science of the northern lights

Here’s where it gets really interesting: When the particles meet the Earth’s magnetic shield, they are led toward an oval around the magnetic North Pole where they interact with the upper parts of the atmosphere, the layers of ozone, oxygen, and other elements that protect Earth. The energy that is then released is sent to us as northern lights.

It adds to the magic to know that this performance happens about 62 miles above our heads. Its immense power is the reason we can see it so clearly, as it’s helped by a myriad of atoms and molecules.

The northern light appears in a belt, or an oval, which is situated above Earth in a regular position in relation to the sun. The lights will usually be visible over mainland northern Norway during the night and over Svalbard during the daytime. When solar activity increases, the northern lights can also be seen farther south in Norway.

Alta norway

Photo: Serey Kim / Unsplash
The aurora borealis, more commonly known as the northern lights, is a natural phenomenon seen throughout the Northern Hemisphere during the winter months. They occur when atoms and molecules in the upper atmosphere are hit by high energy electrons. In ancient times, they were believed to be spirits dancing through the sky. Today, northern Norway locals refer to them as “the green lady.”

Explaining the northern lights

The aurora borealis is far from a new phenomenon. The spectacle of the northern lights is described by early storytellers and has given rise to many legends. Symbols linked to the northern lights are, for instance, found on the Sámi shamanistic drum. The phenomenon has several names in Sámi, among them “Guovssahas,” which means “the light that can be heard.” It’s poetry in motion.

During the Viking Age, the northern lights were said to be the armor of the Valkyrie warrior virgins that shed a strange flickering light. Today, locals are often respectfully referring to the northern lights as “the green lady.” Just check the colors in the numerous photos and films of the lights posted on social media. You might see many more nuances in real life, though.

When and where? There’s no exact answer, but …

Alta norway

Photo: Anne Olsen Ryum / NordNorge
The Northern Lights Cathedral in Alta, Norway, was built in a circular style in 2013, the result of an architectural competition launched in 2001. Its central feature is its large spiral with belfry.

It is often said that the northern parts of Norway are the best places in the world to see the northern lights, as this part of the country lies just below the auroral oval. Well, if we’re honest, that is only a partial truth, as the lights can be just as visible from destinations outside of Norway.

But a bold claim is that northern Norway definitely is among the most comfortable and interesting places to see the lights, as hundreds of thousands of people live in this huge geographical area, offering a variety of hotels and activities to keep you busy.

The northern lights belt hits northern Norway over the Lofoten Islands (although over the past years, aurora has been spotted increasingly more often over Trøndelag, farther to the south), and follows the coast all the way up to the North Cape and beyond. One place in this area is often as good as another—you can observe the same northern lights in Lofoten as in Tromsø 310 miles farther north, just from a different angle.

Aurora can be a bit of a diva, and she will only start the show when she feels the time is right. Patience is a virtue, too, when chasing the northern lights. But to maximize your chances of a sighting, know that the lights are at their most frequent in late autumn and winter/early spring (from September to late March), during the hours from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m.

However, aurora borealis has its climax when the weather is cold and dry, usually starting in December. Some will tell you that the driest weather and the clearest sky is found inland, but that isn’t always true.

With strong eastern wind, the coast can be clearer than inland areas. Avoid the full moon, though, as it will make the experience considerably paler.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 18, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.

Norwegian American Logo

The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.