Sailing stones. Fairy circles. Unusual clouds. Rare and dramatic phenomena are a magnet for tourists and those seeking a spiritual experience – and Norway’s aurora borealis is no different. Known as “nordlys” in Norwegian, and described by the New York Times as “like heavenly visual music”, the northern lights have captured the public’s imagination since the first humans wandered the arctic regions thousands of years ago.
The appeal of the aurora borealis is climbing too. According to Cathrine Pia Lund of Innovation Norway, visits to the country to see the lights increased 378 percent in the ten years between 2006 and 2016, with each individual visitor worth more to the economy per head than a summer holidaymaker. It perhaps helps that celestial displays are still misunderstood – the mystique remains even now – with the STEVE pseudo-aurora new to science as of 2019.
Crossing the Bifrost
The aurora has a storied history that stretches beyond Scandinavia and the Arctic. In Western Europe, where the phenomenon is rare, downtrodden members of society considered the bands of color a bad omen, while the Greeks and Romans believed them to be the visage of the dawn goddess Aurora. Two far more famous aurora stories have them as Bifrost (the rainbow bridge that connects the world of men and that of the gods) in Norse mythology or the reflections from female warriors’ – Valkyries – shields.
Popular culture has maintained the aurora’s mystique. The 2011 game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim depicted a shifting light display above the title’s eponymous region, while movies like Frozen and How to Train your Dragon also show an aurora of some description. Similarly, Bethard slot machine Northern Sky features unique low-poly artwork on a backdrop of the famous phenomenon, which can be found on various online casino sites. Called “spilleautomater” in Norwegian, slot developers regularly borrow from Scandinavian mythology, building games around Vikings and runes, for instance.
Finally, let’s not forget the time Joanna Lumley traveled through Norway to see the aurora for the 2008 TV show In the Land of the Northern Lights.
Of course, the almost universal affection for the northern lights has created a few problems. Efforts to encourage tourism beyond the city of Tromso and into the region occupied by the indigenous Sámi peoples, a group increasingly reliant on tourism, has placed pressure on local infrastructure and even on the Sámi themselves. The website Responsible Travel recommends hiring local people as guides to offset the job losses caused by foreign experts, as reindeer husbandry declines.
The short northern lights viewing season, which is typically advertised as a winter activity, has been something of a curse for local animals too. The dogs employed on husky tours contend with an increasingly intense ‘on’ season but spend around nine months of the year unemployed. CNN Travel, referring to the 4,000-strong dog workforce in nearby Finnish Lapland, claims that, again, locals are losing out to seasonal and non-native husky teams.
Despite the issues, however, the aurora borealis remains both a boon to Norway’s economy and a unique, memorable excursion for hardy travelers.