The northern lights are a magnificent sight; they become visible in a star studded heaven for those travelling in polarregions during the darkest time of the year – breaking forth at this time as a kind of consolation, for those who will allow the opening of their senses, to be inspired by their fluttering, colorful drapery.
It is not surprising that polar inhabitants have sensed at times the accompaniment of a hidden orchestra, as if the northern lights were carrying greetings from deceased friends. As a reminder of this folkloric belief, we find the ancient custom where a child waves at the northern lights with a white cloth in an attempt cause them to appear between the stars. But not everyone gazed at the heavens with wonder when the northern lights appeared in the winter sky: Many ducked their heads in fear and horror, taking it as an ill omen from the Lord, a premonition of shortages, plague or war and as a reminder of obedience and faith.
Both worldly and ecclesiastic powers exploited this fear to their own gain. The northern lights appeared seemingly without rhyme or reason, outside of the system of the planets on their orbits which could be explained by Newton’s laws from the 17th century. The mystery of the northern lights was only solved in part some 200 years later, by Birkeland’s laboratory experiments.
One can usually see the Northern lights in an oval zone encircling the North Pole. This zone encompasses portions of Northern Scandinavia, extends south into Iceland and north to Siberia, crosses Alaska and the area of Northern Canada.
Northern Norway has been a favored meeting place for those seeking to come close to the northern lights, because of its relatively mild climate and attractive landscape. Therefore we call it “The gentle country of the northern lights’; as it welcomes travelers from afar with open arms and where a heavenly dancer swings like a guiding light across the heavens to the background of the region’s glorious scenery.
Already in 1664 one finds letters from the Italian Fransesco Negri, describing a phenomenon he had seen in the north of Norway called Capre saltanti or leaping goats, the same term Aristotle had used for the northern lights. There are further examples of others which attest to Norway being the nation where one could find this unusual sight. One of the first scientists from abroad who found his way to northern Norway was the Hungarian astronomer Maxmilian Hell, sent to Vardoehus fortress by King Christian the VII to observe Venus which at this time was to cross the sundial in 1769. While he was there he saw the northern lights several times and his opinion was that they were light rays from the sun and moon, refracted and reflected by frozen precipitation in the air.
In 1838 a French expedition led by the physicist Auguste Bravais stayed at Bossekop in Finnmark to study and measure the altitude of the phenomenon. At this time there was widespread disagreement about the altitude of the lights, the accuracy of which it was necessary to establish, in order to determine their true cause. No inconclusive answer was found however; this was long before the art of photography had been discovered and the only means of reproducing images of the northern lights was by drawing them. An artist named Louis Bevalet performed this function for the expedition. These drawings are now some of the most beautiful and naturally authentic replications made of the phenomenon.
Bossekop was soon a Mecca for Northern Lights investigations and by 1882-83, Norway had a station there. The Danish scholar Sophus Tromholi also had his own observatory in Kautokeino. He attempted, without success, to take photographs of the northern lights.
The German engineer Martin Brendel had greater success in Bossekop in 1891 and his work represents the first known photographs of the northern lights.
In September 1899, professor Kristian Birkeland set to work, in the new observatories on Halddetoppen and Talviktoppen, in Bossekop, triangulating the northern lights. Here Birkeland and his assistants performed observations which were of importance to his subsequent theory on the northern lights and signified a new era within northern lights research.
Text by Asgeir Brekke, University of Tromsø
- Brekke, Asgeir/ Bakke, Dagfinn. (2000). Nordlys. Samlaget.