The Northern Lights are the fantasy of any avid photographer, explorer or tourist. They are often at the top of people’s to-do list when visiting Iceland. Every day during the winter season, many people join tours to try to catch a glimpse of this elusive wonder.

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Since the dawn of humanity, we have witnessed the shimmering ribbons of light carving the sky through a winter landscape and wondered what exactly they are and what they mean. Apart from the best spots and times to view their glory, there is a wealth of interesting facts about the northern lights that aren’t widely known.

Here are a few of the strange facts about the Northern Lights that might add another layer to this ethereal experience.

6. They’re the Stuff of Pure Science

Northern Lights dancing in the sky in Iceland.

The name Aurora Borealis comes from the Latin Aurora (Roman goddess of dawn) and Borealis, meaning ‘northern.’ The spectacular glow of the northern lights is caused by collisions of fast-moving electrons within the region of space controlled by the Earth’s magnetic field, also known as the magnetosphere.

The particles react with oxygen and nitrogen molecules and transfer some of their energy when they collide. These ‘excited’ molecules return to a more stable state by releasing photons or light particles. When these collisions happen in large numbers, enough light is created for us to see them.

If this is too heavy to digest, here is Neil Degrasse Tyson explaining it.

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5. They Have an Extensive Colour Palette

Pink and green Northern Lights over Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon.

The particular colour of the lights produced depends on if the electrons are colliding with oxygen or nitrogen and the strength of the collision. Nitrogen generally gives off blue light; oxygen emits green, yellow or red light. The blending of both nitrogen and oxygen will produce purple, pink and white.

The most common colour of the lights seen in Iceland is green. This is likely due to high oxygen levels in the atmosphere above the land of fire and ice.

4. They’re Everpresent

Aurora borealis over a farm house in Iceland

Auroras mostly occur near the poles at high altitudes. However, they have been seen as far south as Mexico. They also happen during the day but cannot be seen with the naked eye. Research into the phenomenon has found that there is always an aurora somewhere on earth.

It can be difficult to predict the best chances of seeing the northern lights because conditions and weather in Iceland can change swiftly. Some circumstances provide better viewing opportunities, however.  You can witness the lights anywhere, but clear skies are better. Moving away from the city centre will eliminate light pollution and create a better vantage point.

They can occur all year round but are most common between September and April during the hours between dusk and dawn. It is also advisable to avoid looking for the auroras during a full moon.

See Also: Northern Lights Research Centre Opened in Northern Iceland

3. There are Southern Lights

Aurora Australis over Swifts Creek, Victoria, Australia

Southern Lights. Credit: Wikimedia Creative Commons Fir0002

There is an aurora around the southern magnetic pole. This is called the aurora australis and has to be even more active than the northern lights before it can be seen with the naked eye. It can be viewed on rare occasions in Tasmania, Australia and also in the southern tip of New Zealand.

There are unique times of the year when both the northern and southern lights can be seen at the same time. From space, it can appear that the aurora borealis and aurora australis are mirroring each other.

2. They Have Inspired Countless Myths

Aurora, by Guercino, 1621-23 (ceiling fresco in the Casino Ludovisi, Rome)

The first known mention of the auroras is thought to be a 30,000-year-old cave painting. It is also believed that the aurora is referred to in a Babylonian clay tablet that dates back to 567 BCE.

The appearance of the auroras in the night sky held significant meaning for the civilizations viewing them. The ancient Romans believed them to be the goddess Aurora who raced across the sky to signify the coming of a new day.

It’s incredibly rare for the lights to appear in Southern Europe, but on these slight occasions, they have been seen as an omen of bad times ahead. It is said that the skies above Scotland and England were red in the weeks leading up to the French revolution.

Ancient Chinese legends viewed the rare sighting of the aurora as a battle between two dragons representing good and evil and the Japanese believed that a child conceived under the Northern Lights would be blessed with good looks and incredible fortune.

A painting of a valkyrie by Norwegian painter Peter Nicolai Arbo, 1869

Valkyrie by Peter Nicolai Arbo 1869

In Norse mythology, the aurora was the reflections of the armour of the Valkyrie, female warriors serving the god Odin. The Valkyrie were tasked with deciding who died in battle and who would get to live another day.

In Iceland, it was believed that the lights would relieve the pain experienced during childbirth. However, the mother in labour needed to avoid looking at the aurora or she would risk her child being born cross-eyed. This begs the question, ‘how many cross-eyed children were born under the northern lights for this to be a thing?’

1. People Claim to Have Heard Them

Northern Lights over a country road in Iceland

Although there is no scientific evidence to back this up, some people viewing the lights have maintained they can hear cracking or whooshing noises that accompany them. Sound waves cannot be carried in the upper atmosphere because it is too thin and the lights are so far away; it would take a full five minutes for any noise to reach ears on the ground.

Early explorers noted sounds when seeing the lights but they also discovered that covering one’s eyes would make the sounds disappear. This is thought to be the result of ‘signal leakage,’ which is overstimulated visual centres in the brain.

Understanding why some people hear things when seeing the lights is more likely to result in finding out how the human brain works, than the lights themselves.