A little-known weather phenomenon makes a small town in Sweden’s Arctic one of the best places on Earth to consistently see the Northern Lights.
“I’m not so sure we’ll be able to see them,” said my videographer colleague Erik Jaråker, looking at the mist around him.
I was driving towards one of the northernmost towns in Sweden, Abisko, located 250 kms. north of the Arctic Circle.
We were stuck in the middle of a snowstorm with zero visibility, and around us the mountains of Abisko National Park had turned into a sea of white.
We were going to photograph the elusive aurora borealis, nature’s spectacular festival of lights that occurs when explosions on the Sun’s surface, called solar flares, collide with gases in Earth’s atmosphere to create brilliant bands of red, green and purple.
To witness them, we needed cold, clear, cloudless skies, not the winter storm we were going through.
“Trust me,” I assured him confidently. “We’ll see them.”
In the oval of the dawn
I had been here before under similar storm conditions and soon learned that Abisko is home to a “blue hole”, a patch of sky that stretches 10 to 20 square kilometers over the town, Lake Torneträsk and the Abisko National Park, and that remains clear regardless of surrounding weather patterns.
That phenomenon makes Abisko, and northern Sweden, one of the best places in the world to consistently witness the Northern Lights.
“It is an ideal place to observe them because it is within the aurora oval and has a very long dark season (aurora observations are recorded from mid-August to April), so there are many,” explains Erik Kjellström. , professor of climatology at the Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute.
” The only thing that is needed is that there are no clouds ,” he says. He adds that such conditions are in abundance thanks to its position on the eastern side of the Scandinavian Mountain Range, which runs along the border between Norway and Sweden.
“The prevailing wind direction in this area is from the west, which means that moist air masses from the Atlantic have to rise to higher (colder) altitudes to pass over the Scandinavian mountains,” says Håkan Grudd, support coordinator to research and deputy director of the Abisko Scientific Research Station.
“When that happens, clouds form and the air loses moisture through precipitation. In Abisko, on the lee side of the mountains, the air is drier and sinks to lower altitudes: the clouds disintegrate, hence the ‘blue hole’ “.
So it’s no wonder Abisko attracts professional photographers like Erik and myself, as well as travelers who have ‘see the Northern Lights’ on their bucket list.
from near and far
That’s what also attracted photographer and entrepreneur Chad Blakley.
In 2008, as young newlyweds, he and his Swedish wife, Linnea, wanted a change in their corporate lives in the US.
Combining his love of the great outdoors with the opportunity to better understand Linnea’s culture, Blakely found work as a maid at the popular STF Abisko Turiststation hotel in the national park.
“I learned about the blue hole by experiencing it,” says Blakley, who, in the early days, spent every possible night photographing the northern lights in the national park.
” A hole in the clouds could be seen directly above the village , while the sky on the horizon in all directions was often cloudy and snow-filled.”
In 2010, he and Linnea launched a Northern Lights tourism company, Lights Over Lapland. And for those who couldn’t get to the remote region of Sweden, they installed a webcam that has been running for more than a decade and takes a picture every five minutes for an annual audience of between 8 and 10 million.
The company later added a live HD video camera, so people could see the auroras in real time .
“We’ve been seeing auroras consistently, almost every clear night, for more than 10 years,” says Blakley.
Blakley is in the process of installing the world’s first real-time 8k 360-degree Aurora webcam that will allow viewers to view the auroras live using a virtual reality camera and goggles next season.
polka dot rainbow
The Northern Lights are Abisko’s main draw during the winter months, but the microclimate also provides for other spectacular weather phenomena, such as the very rare lunar arcs, also known as lunar rainbows and lunar halos, which occur when light from the L One is reflected and refracted by water droplets and ice crystals in the air surrounding the blue hole .
But for Anette Niia and Ylva Sarri, members of Sweden’s indigenous Sámi community, Abisko is much more than their blue hole.
About 70,000 Sámi live in the arctic and subarctic parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula in Russia, a region known collectively as Sápmi.
Both have spent time in Abisko since childhood because it is also a reindeer herding area for their families.
Niia explains that the microclimate of the area gives a thinner snow in the winter, so spring comes early and therefore there is food for reindeer and other animals.
“The blue hole is something that tourism companies talk about,” he says. “For us Sámi, Abisko is special for different reasons.”
“¡You’re a magician!”
Still, she and Sarri also have a connection to tourism: Their ancestors were mountain guides for visitors since the early 20th century.
Today, they are co-founders of Scandinavian Sami Photoadventures, which leads several outdoor experiences in Abisko, including Northern Lights tours.
“As guides, we know that when you cross the Miellejohka stream, which flows from the Cuonjavaggi [valley], you can go from a full blown snowstorm to clear skies in 100 meters ,” Niia said .
“¡You’re a magician!”
And that’s exactly what happened when Erik and I finally reached Abisko: thick snow clouds hung over the mountains around us, but above our heads we saw a clear blue sky.
captive of the auroras
On my first trip to Abisko, scientist-turned-photographer Peter Rosén told me that children weren’t supposed to watch or whistle at the dancing auroras, or point at them in amazement, as the lights would go down and carry them away.
Born and raised in Sweden, Rosén had grown up with these stories.
In 1998, his career as an environmental researcher at the Center for Climate Impact Research at Umeå University took him to Abisko. He spent 13 years studying climate change in the Arctic through the Abisko Scientific Research Station (in 2021, it was recognized as a Centennial Observing Station by the World Meteorological Organization).
But early on, he was fascinated by the blue hole and the northern lights , taking his first photographs in 2001, which are now part of permanent installations in galleries in northern Sweden.
“My colleagues used to say I was ‘spare time researcher, full time photographer,'” he jokes.
By 2012, Rosén had left his scientific career to run Lappland Media, teaching travelers how to properly photograph the lights.
He remembers one of his guests, who since she was 5 years old dreamed of seeing the auroras. She had pursued them in vain in Canada, Norway and Finland. On her first night in Abisko, she collapsed and cried after seeing what Rosen found was not very impressive. The following nights, they witnessed phenomenal shows.
“Seeing people express their feelings by seeing the auroras makes me feel like I have the best job in the world,” says Rosén.
“I have never regretted leaving my life as a researcher, because now I am living my dream.”
I remember how amazed I was the first time I saw the lights in Abisko, on the slopes of Mount Nuolja, 900 meters above sea level. Perched near the summit is the remote Aurora Sky Station, a 20-minute chairlift ride from its base. There is no better location to see the blue hole spread out over the bright lights of Abisko and the frozen Torneträsk lake in the valley below.
This time, as Erik and I climbed the mountain, finally riding the chairlift in total darkness after riding through that storm, the experience evoked a sense of awe for what we were about to witness : ethereal green lights dancing and folding like curtains in the sky.