In Search of the Northern Lights

On a clear January night in northern Sweden, after hours of squinting and wondering if this or that small cloud might be the northern lights, a shimmering, alien-green ribbon unfurled across the sky. Here, on the shore of the frozen Torne River, just outside the village of Kurravaara, there was none of the mysterious clapping or crackling that Finnish researchers have recorded with the mesmerizing spectacle known as the aurora borealis. Instead, the only sound was the joyous yelp of a couple from Shanghai as they bounded out of the neighboring cabin, Huawei camera phone aloft.

In an era when the digital world has winnowed our attention spans, the aurora borealis still demands presence and patience, a long journey to far northern latitudes, and the fortitude to weather arctic conditions. Despite these challenges, color-saturated images of the otherworldly aurora in social and traditional media continue to inspire travelers in growing numbers. And while over-the-top experiences abound — you can charter a bush plane to a remote mountain lodge in Canada, rent a helicopter to fly above the clouds in Iceland, or camp on a glacier in Greenland — the greatest consequence of this tourism boom is the expanding range of aurora-chasing experiences for every type of traveler.

“We’ve seen the addition of a Korean restaurant, a Japanese bakery and a Chinese hot pot restaurant,” said Cathie Bolstad, chief executive of Northwest Territories Tourism.

The same government report estimated that last season those tourists spent over $40 million.

Beyond North America, the interest in northern lights travel has spurred improved tourism infrastructure across the arctic region, from northern Russia to Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Greenland.

Before embarking on my own aurora hunt in northern Sweden, I wanted to understand what, exactly, it was I was searching for in the dark arctic sky.

“The aurora is a manifestation of what we call space weather,” Dr. Trondsen explained the day before my flight departed from Stockholm for Kiruna. “It all starts at the sun.”

As the sun’s magnetic field becomes stronger and weaker, it can become unstable, resulting in solar flares and what’s called a coronal mass ejection. “Basically the sun burps a piece of itself into space,” he said. “And these are particles — electrons, as well as a piece of its own magnetic field.”

These particles blow into space and some reach earth. Our magnetic field eventually draws the particles toward the North and South Poles, where they may enter the atmosphere.

“It’s when these electrons hit our atmosphere that you get the aurora,” he continued, comparing the effect to old phosphor-coated television screens bombarded by electron beams from behind. The region in which the lights appear — the auroral oval — rings both geomagnetic poles.

“The earth rotates us in under the aurora at midnight, or around midnight our local time,” he continued, explaining prime aurora-chasing time. As for the characteristic colors, he said, “that’s indicative of what altitude the reaction happens at, and which gas the electron hits. For example, if it hits oxygen, you get green and red typically. If it hits nitrogen, you get blue light.”

“What usually limits the ability to see aurora is clouds,” explained Urban Braendstroem, an aurora researcher at the Swedish Institute for Space Physics in Kiruna, in an email. “Abisko has the most clear nights in Sweden due to meteorological conditions caused by the surrounding mountains.”

Abisko is a village roughly 125 miles north of the Arctic Circle with a population hovering around the same number. The rural area was primarily a destination among Swedes for late-winter skiing and summer hiking when Chad and Linnea Blakley arrived in 2008 to work at the local mountain lodge, STF Abisko Fjallstation, where I met with the couple in a quiet room above the bustling, hostel-like lobby.

“This is hard to believe, but at the time, there was really not any northern lights tourism to speak of in Abisko,” said Mr. Blakley, a Missouri native. Inspired by the aurora, he began photographing the phenomenon and developed a following online for his dramatic images. In 2010, the couple started Lights over Lapland, a photography tour company, and today they employ 21 people in Abisko. “It went from a backwater with really no tourism infrastructure at all to one of the leading aurora destinations on the planet in a decade,” he said. In 2017, the lodge reported 30,000 international guest nights.

Today groups of tourists dressed in puffy coveralls and insulated boots toddle around Abisko — a modest cluster of houses along one main road with no traffic light — snapping photos while posing beside locals’ snowmobiles and pet huskies.

According to Louise Johansson, the communications coordinator at the mountain lodge, which is run by the Swedish Tourist Association, the winter months now draw more visitors than the summer season. Just a few years ago, the opposite was true. In January 2018 alone, the lodge hosted guests of 42 different nationalities.

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