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The Northern Lights: some facts and legends

Far up in the north of Lapland, the majestic Northern Lights can be seen flickering on the arctic firmament on no fewer than 200 nights a year. The Luosto region, where snow is a certainty each winter, is one of the best in the world for observing the Northern Lights. The Sodankylä Geophysical Observatory not far away has roots dating back to the 1880s and is known internationally for its research. "The chances of seeing the Northern Lights are, on average, 55 per cent, which means 200 nights of the year," says Dr Esa Turunen of the Sodankylä Geophysical Observatory. "During the most cloud-free weeks of January and February the chances of seeing the Northern Lights can be as high as 100 per cent during a three-day stay. The Lights are visible at Luosto from the end of August to the middle of April - for most of the year, in fact."

The glowing green arc spanning the sky from east to west usually appears in Finland just before midnight, by which time the sky is sufficiently dark. As the night draws on, the lights may become so bright that they cast shadows on the ground. The most breath-taking of all is when they begin their rapid dance. Intensified brightness is a sign that the Lights are about to become more active. The lucky observer may be witness to the most beautiful configuration of all, the crown or corona, in which the dancing rays seem to spring from a single overhead source and the whole sky is bathed in light.

The legend of the heavenly fox

The name for the Northern Lights in Finnish is 'revontulet', which literally means 'fox fires'. In this respect Finnish is unusual, since most languages display a great lack of imagination and simply call them Northern Lights. The Latin name Aurora borealis means 'northern dawn'. The explanation for why the Finns chose to call them 'fox fires' is inventive to say the least: legend has it that a fox is sweeping the arctic snows with its tail, causing sparks to shoot into the sky. Or else the fox is rubbing its fur against the side of the fell, causing static electricity. Another theory is that the 'fox fires' are snow crystals tossed by the fox onto the sky and reflected in the moonlight. In reality, the word 'fox fires' in fact probably means 'spell fires', because the Finnish 'revon' (an inflected form of the word 'repo' = fox) is derived from 'repoitella' meaning 'to chant spells'.

"Total silence reigns in the icy polar regions. Nature is silenced by the cold. On the southern horizon, however, there is a faint light visible - an arc of Northern Lights. Slowly the arc gets brighter, as it gradually climbs higher and higher in the sky. A pale light - an arc of Northern Lights - nevertheless glows like the dawn on the southern horizon. The arc grows slowly brighter as it climbs higher and higher in the sky. The form of the Northern Light is stable and its colour is uniformly green. The arc stays quiet and calm as it rises further towards the zenith. Suddenly another, just as regular an arc appears on the southern horizon, and soon after this, several new arcs. In a moment, there are seven arcs in the sky, all moving slowly towards the north.

Suddenly a band forms, showing much brighter light than the arcs. Its movements are rapid. As in an ever-changing play, the band varies both in form and in colour. Small light waves travel uninterruptedly from east to west, from west to east. All this happens simultaneously, as the band itself undulates and winds itself into a spiral, as if it is a mysterious magic curtain in the sky. What a lovely sight across the dark polar sky!

The light intensifies and the movements become more and more rapid. The upper and lower edges of the band show colours of the rainbow, especially different hues of red. As the band once more approaches the zenith, it suddenly breaks into a vast bunch of long rays. These
all originate from one single point. We are offered a magnificent light display, straight from the focus. The light waves dance as if being coupled around the one single point. This fantastic corona of Northern lights disappears for a short while - in order to reappear once more in different colours. The rays now dance up and down, faster and faster. The whole sky is one wavy, stormy sea of violent flames. The entire icy view is lit and the strong illumination creates fantastic shadows on the ground. Then unexpectedly, this all vanishes unbelievably fast.

The Northern lights are an imposing fireworks display - incomprehensible in their scale even for the most vivid imagination. No paint, no brush, and no word can truly describe their glory."

(From the diary of Carl Weyprecht, the leader of an Austro-Hungarian polar expedition to Franz Josef Land in the 1870s.)

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