Celestial Illumination: Why Nothern Lights Are So Magnetic for Tourists

Photo: Kamil Nureev
Photo: Kamil Nureev

It is the season of the northern lights in Russia. Tourists from all over the world are in a hurry to look at a unique natural phenomenon. Hotels in the northern regions are booked until April. Some people go there for great shots. Others come for an unusual vacation. Some people come to conceive a child. Why are the northern lights becoming more and more popular from year to year, where is the best place to observe it and what dangers do they have? Details are in our report.

Nature of the phenomenon

What are the northern lights? The Finnish name of the northern lights is "revontulet" (translated to - "fox lights"). The Saami believed that this polar fox threw up sparks of snow with a bushy tail.

The riddle of the mysterious lights was solved by Mikhail Lomonosov. He came to the conclusion that the electricity plays the main part in the northern lights. The scientist conducted an experiment: through flasks filled with various gases, he passed the current through glass jars filled with various gases, and after the experiment the jars began to glow with unique colors.


"Cotton Grass and Light". Photo: Igor Turovsky
"Cotton Grass and Light". Photo: Igor Turovsky

In other words, the Sun ejects charged particles - the solar wind, that reaching the Earth causes the atmosphere to glow with different lights. Our planet "catches" passing solar wind with the help of magnetic attraction and directs it to the magnetic poles. There the solar particles instantly attract themselves to them, and from the collision of the solar wind with the atmosphere, the energy appears, that is converted into light and that creates the northern lights. Waves and shimmers, that people can observe, occur at an altitude of 100 to 300 kilometers.

Catch the fire fox by the tail

Nothern lights in the north latitudes of Russia can be observed from September to April. The Murmansk Region is among the ten best places on the planet to view this phenomenon. It is easy to reach and winter there are relatively warm. About 100-150 people arrive here every day during the whole season: to watch, to take pictures and even to conceive a child. The Chinese, who are still the most numerous guests of the Kola Peninsula, have a legend: if you conceive a child during the northern lights, he or she will be healthy, happy and fabulously rich. They say that this superstition is rooted in Scandinavian mythology, but the inhabitants of China perceived it as their own. And what if it really works?


Photo: Vladimir Alekseev
Photo: Vladimir Alekseev

Vladimir Onatsky, President of the Guides Association of the Murmansk Region “Arctic Guides”, carries tourists all season after the northern lights. He says that the most popular destinations are Teriberka, Saami, Lovozero, Khibiny, Husky and Murmansk. But the northern lights are very dependent on the weather. Thanks to the warm Gulf Stream the weather on the Kola Peninsula is much warmer than, for example, in Chukotka. But it also increases cloudiness. This means that the northern lights can not be seen always and everywhere. Sometimes in search of color shimmers you have to drive all night. “Tourists listen to rumors,” Vladimir complains. “Someone told someone that Teriberka had the brightest and longest lights. Everyone goes there. We arrive, the sky is overcast. And just one road leads from there and the only thing to do is to stand and wait for the clear sky. It is much better if we start the hunt for aurora from Murmansk. There are four roads that lead from Murmansk. That means we look at the weather and according to weather conditions we choose the way to the most advantageous district".

The three-day tour "After the Lights" in the Murmansk region costs from 30 thousand rubles. Among the tourists besides the Chinese, there also are Thais, Filipinos, Indians, Spaniards. Many of them speak English and ready to invest in the unusual vacation.


Photo: Alexander Merkushev
Photo: Alexander Merkushev

"The official statistics on the number of tourists in the Murmansk Region is very different from the real numbers, says Vladimir Onatsky. - The hotels are booked for six months or even for a year in advance. Real numbers are five times higher. Many tourists come self consistent, rent accommodation from local residents. They independently visit popular places". And it is also impossible to get the real statistics from travel agencies. Also, the number of illegal guides has increased during the last two or three years. Even the taxi drivers promise to show the best northern lights. However, they do not guarantee the results. Honest Arctic guides that carry their guests until they manage to catch a fire fox by the tail.

According to Vladimir, he works mainly with Russian tourists. Many of them come again - with their family, colleagues, friends. He considers it extremely important that the customers are satisfied and have a pleasant impression of the region. And recently, on the Kola Peninsula, the tourist business followed the demand: they began to build glass ice houses (igloos) where is warm and the sky is visible.


 Photo: Alexander Stepanenko
Photo: Alexander Stepanenko

How to take a picture of the northern lights

  • It is necessary to have a tripod to fix the camera at the time of shooting.
  • It is necessary to be patient, because the northern lights do not light up on schedule. Dress warmly and take a thermos with a warm drink.
  • In expectation of the northen lights, it is better to keep the camera in a case or under clothing.
  • Shooting must be done with a focus on infinity (landscape mode).
  • And the most important is that you have to set the exposure time for at least 15 seconds. Otherwise, the pictures will be dark, and the glow will be unnoticeable.

By the way, now the Russian Geographical Society continues to receive photos at the V photo contest "The Most Beautiful Country." Perhaps the winner will be a picture of the northern lights. Details are here.

How do sirens come into the picture?

The northern people believed that the northern lights can drive a person insane. The Russian Pomors even introduced the concept of "meryachenie". It is an unusual mental illness that occurs simultaneously in several people. The Eskimos call this the "Polar Star Call".


Photo: Alla Fedina
Photo: Alla Fedina

The first person who noted this phenomenon from a medical point of view was the British Dr. Watson. He participated in several polar expeditions at the very beginning of the twentieth century. The scientist described people who fell into a strange state, who began to make rhythmic, sequential movements and moved towards the north. Any attempts to keep them led to active resistance. Watson called this condition expeditionary or polar madness.

Earlier, the famous polar Amundsen encountered this strange phenomenon. He was the navigator of the ship "Belgica", that stood in the winter near the coast of Antarctica. Several members of the expedition "heard" the call of the North Star. One of them even escaped from the ship into the snowy expanses, while the other tried to kill Amundsen with an ax.

Doctors who took part in polar expeditions discovered a pattern: almost all cases of polar madness coincided with the activity of the northern lights. The most terrible case coincided with flashes of red. The number of such attacks of expeditionary madness seriously increased in the years with recorded peaks of solar activity, when the brightest northern lights occurred.


Photo: Alexander Merkushev
Photo: Alexander Merkushev

In Petrograd in 1918, the Brain Institute appeared. It was headed by academician Bekhterev. The scientist showed interest in mental illness, appeared in the polar regions. Bekhterev organized a scientific expedition to the Kola Peninsula, but it had not results. In 1957, Soviet scientists returned to this study. After the experiments, they found out: certain forms of the northern lights pulsate with a frequency that is close to the basic rhythms of the human brain, which causes a kind of failure in its work. And bright flashes of scarlet color coincide with the frequency close to the rhythms of the brain. They cause exacerbation of chronic diseases and seizures, similar to epileptic. Other subjects experienced headaches and malfunctions of the vestibular apparatus under the influence of such outbreaks. This type of exposure is particularly susceptible to people prone to mental illness.

The frequency of their radiation is 8-13 hertz, that corresponds to the frequency of beta and alpha rhythms of the human brain. A person observing the northern lights feels an inexplicable need to become one with something majestic. The northern lights is accompanied by active infrasound, that is not audible. Infrasound is unpredictable: it is not known what changes occur in this case with the human brain and cardiovascular system. Therefore, to become a witness of the northern lights means to expose yourself to an unknown danger to the body.

Infrasound is the cause of many tragedies taking place in the sea. The insignificant effect of infrasound entails sea-sickness, the middle one causes brain function disorders, sometimes vision and hearing loss. It is believed that the 7 hertz infrasound is fatal to humans. Death occurs due to the vibration of internal organs, which leads to cardiac arrest. Scientists believe that the legends of sea sirens, inviting navigators, are directly related to the northern lights.


Photo: Sergey Barkov
Photo: Sergey Barkov


The Russian Association of Tour Operators reported an increase in demand for winter tours to Russia. The main volume of tourist arrivals in winter in Russia is given by countries in Asia and Europe. According to experts, in the winter season Russia will receive mainly tourists from China (about 80 thousand), South Korea (about 20 thousand), Israel (about 15 thousand), Germany (about 15 thousand), France (about 10 thousand), from Italy, Thailand, Turkey - 6–8 thousand people in January – February.

Intourists choose Moscow, St. Petersburg and Transsib. And if some of them go to immerse themselves into the New Year's fairy tale in the capital, the rest are attracted by the northern lights. On the territory of our country, this phenomenon can be observed in almost the entire North. Every year the number of viewers of a natural light show grows by about 20%. Most of these tours are sold to Murmansk and Karelia.

The project "Traveling with the RGS" offers three seasonal tours in which you can see the northern lights: in the Arkhangelsk region, in Chukotka and in Karelia.


Photo: Alexander Merkushev
Photo: Alexander Merkushev

Interesting facts about the northern lights

1. Natural magnetism

The northern lights occur at both poles of the Earth. The iron core, that forms the basis of our planet, acts like a giant magnet that magnetize charged particles. Most strongly, this attraction is manifested in magnetic poles, which are located near the geographic poles, although they do not coincide with them.

2. The northern lights colors

The color spectrum of the northern lights depends on the charged particles of the solar wind. Nitrogen blazes violet, and oxygen is red and green.

3. The light from the sky window

The Eskimos of Alaska believe: the northern lights is the brilliance of the clouds on which the light falls from the windows of the heavenly palace. This palace is invisible, the souls of the dead hunters live in it, the Polar Star is burning above its roof. But when the deceased want to look at their homeland, they open the windows, and on the earth people see a magical glow in the sky.

4. Blessing

Since ancient times, the northern lights was perceived as a good sign from above. According to legend, the Russian army of Alexander Nevsky saw it before the battle with the Crusaders on Chudskoe Lake. This raised the morale, the warriors felt that the heavenly host would hurry them to help.

5. The bridge of the Gods

The ancient Norse believed that the northern lights is the bridge by which the gods descend to the earth. Another Norwegian legend says that the northern lights occurs because the light of the stars reflects off the shields of the Valkyries. 

6. Spots and tapes

The shape of the northern lights depends on the intensity of the light. It is usually seen in the form of a spot or tape.

7. How to measure the northern lights?

There are four categories of light. The first class is the most pale and unites almost imperceptible shines, not brighter than the Milky Way. The brightest one is the fourth class that includes flashes, as bright as the full moon.