Have you seen the Lights?

Finns can be surprisingly blasé about the Northern Lights. All right, so their northerly location means that their chances of witnessing one of the most spectacular and bewitching natural phenomena on the planet are better than most. But to my mind, this is something you want to see again and again if you’ve seen it once. Finns returning from a Lapland resort after a skiing holiday will tell you all about the number of kilometers they’ve covered and the new friends they made in the bar afterwards. But if they see the aurora borealis, the chances are they mention it only as an afterthought.

The first time I saw these extraordinary dancing green and red curtains of light was nearly 30 years ago on a frozen Finnish lake. I was with two English friends and we jumped around in the snow in utter astonishment. Our watching Finnish hosts found our child-like rapture as entertaining as the aurora, which shifted from one side of the lake to the other and soared overhead in dazzling shafts. The Finnish name for the aurora – revontulet – translates as “fox’s fires”, and it’s easy to see how the original inhabitants of the polar region created supernatural stories to explain what was, to them, unexplainable.

The zone of visibility extends as far south as Helsinki more often than people realize, but light pollution and the difficulty of finding a broad extended view to the north in the city makes it hard to spot. The aurora, a consequence of solar activity, might also be doing its stuff in broad daylight, but of course we can’t see it then. It isn’t limited to the northern polar areas either: the southern equivalent, the aurora australis, or Southern Lights, is equally glorious but less celebrated for the simple reason that fewer people live within its sphere of visibility.

From now until the winter of 2013-14 the Northern and Southern Lights are reaching the peak of an 11-year cycle, so this is a great time for aurora hunting. I was reminded of this on a recent evening Finnair flight back from London when the pilot apologized for disturbing our rest somewhere over central Sweden and suggested that we take a peak out of the window. Since the plane was full of nonchalant Finns, a sudden lurch to the left-hand side of the plane did not take place, but I rushed to the galley window as the captain dimmed the cabin lights. A queue of inquisitive Brits formed behind me – the Finns refused to get excited – and I had to be dragged away like a screaming infant from the sensational panorama of jumping green light.

So if you are seated on a Finnair flight after dark on the northern side of the aircraft, it’s worth keeping an eye on the view outside in the coming months – after all, it might be cloudy down below, but from an airborne perspective you don’t have to worry about that.

Check out this new App – Laplication.

You can also sign up to Aurora Alerts to keep informed about when good views are most likely using the Aurora Forecast app.