"I'm not so sure we'll see them," said my videographer colleague Erik Jaråker, as he looked at the fog all around. I was driving us up the single-lane highway towards one of Sweden's northernmost villages, Abisko, located 250km north of the Arctic Circle. We were caught in the middle of a snowstorm with zero visibility, and all around us, the mountains of Abisko National Park had become a sea of white.
We were heading up to photograph the elusive Northern Lights – nature's spectacular light show, also known as the Aurora Borealis. The displays occur when explosions on the sun's surface, called solar flares, collide with gases in the Earth's atmosphere to create shimmering bands of red, green and purple. To witness this Aurora activity, we needed frigid, clear, cloudless skies, not the winter storm we were currently slogging through.
"Trust me," I assured him confidently. "We'll see them."
I'd been here before under similar storm conditions, and I'd quickly learned that Abisko is home to a "blue hole", a patch of sky that extends 10 to 20 sq km over the village, Lake Torneträsk and Abisko National Park and that remains clear regardless of surrounding weather patterns. This phenomenon makes Abisko one of the best places in the world to consistently witness the Aurora Borealis.
"Abisko, and northern Sweden, is indeed an ideal place to watch it," said Erik Kjellström, professor in climatology at the Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute, in an email. "This is due to the fact that it lies within the Auroral oval and it has a very long dark season – auroral observations are reported from mid-August to April – so there are plenty of Northern Lights around. The only thing needed is cloud-free conditions." And, he added, Abisko has those in spades thanks to its position on the eastern side of the Scandinavian Mountain Range, which runs along the Norway-Sweden border.
Auroral observations are reported from mid-August to April in Abisko (Credit: Lola Akinmade Åkerström)
Håkan Grudd, research support coordinator and deputy station manager of the Abisko Scientific Research Station, explained further. "The dominating 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. When this happens, clouds form and the air loses moisture through precipitation. In Abisko, on the leeside of the mountains, the air is now drier and sinks to lower altitudes – clouds disintegrate, hence the 'blue hole'."
So, it's no wonder Abisko draws professional photographers like me and Erik, as well as travellers who want to check off their bucket-list item of seeing the Aurora Borealis.
That's what drew photographer and entrepreneur Chad Blakley too. In 2008, as young newlyweds, he and his Swedish wife, Linnea, wanted a change from their corporate lives in the US. Combining his love for the outdoors with an opportunity to better understand Linnea's culture, Blakely found work as part of the cleaning staff at the popular STF Abisko Turiststation hotel in the national park.
"I learned about the blue hole by experiencing it," said Blakley, who, in the early days of his career, spent every night possible photographing the Northern Lights in the national park. "You could see a hole in the clouds directly over the village, while the sky on the horizon in all directions was often cloudy and full of snow."
Abisko is home to a "blue hole" – a patch of sky that remains clear regardless of surrounding weather patterns (Credit: Lola Akinmade Åkerström)
In 2010, he and Linnea started an Aurora Borealis tourism company, Lights Over Lapland. And for those who couldn't make it up to the remote region of Sweden, they set up a still-camera webcam that has been running for more than a decade and takes a picture every five minutes for an annual viewership of between 8 and 10 million. The company later added a live HD video camera, so that people could watch the lights in real time.
"We have seen Auroras consistently, nearly every single clear night, for more than 10 years," Blakley shared. "And I am proud to say that the blue hole has helped Abisko gain a reputation for Aurora sightings."
Blakley is in the process of installing the world's first real-time, 8k, 360-degree Aurora webcam that will allow viewers to watch the Auroras live using a virtual reality (VR) camera and VR glasses next season.
Rosen: "Seeing how people express their feelings after seeing the lights makes me feel I have the best job in the world" (Credit: Lola Akinmade Åkerström)
The Northern Lights are Abisko's main draw during the winter months, but the microclimate also provides other spectacular weather events too, such as very rare "moonbows", also known as lunar rainbows and lunar halos, which occur when moonlight reflects and refracts through water droplets and ice crystals in the air surrounding the blue hole.
However, for Anette Niia and Ylva Sarri, who are members of Sweden's indigenous Sámi community, Abisko is much more than its blue hole. There are about 70,000 Sámi living in the Arctic and subarctic parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula in Russia – a region collectively known as Sápmi. Both women have spent time in Abisko since childhood because it is also a reindeer herding area for their families. Niia explained that the area's microclimate results in thinner snow during winter, which means spring arrives early here – and therefore food for reindeer and other animals. "The blue hole is something tourism companies talk about," she said. "For us Sámi, Abisko is special for different reasons."
Still, she and Sarri also have a connection to tourism here – their families' ancestors were mountain guides for visitors starting in the early 1900s. Today, the women are the cofounders of Scandinavian Sami Photoadventures, which leads several outdoor experiences in Abisko, including Northern Lights tours. "We as guides know that when we arrive at Miellejohka stream, which flows down from Cuonjavaggi [valley], and go past it, you can go from a full snowstorm to clear skies within 100m," said Niia. "That's magic!"
And that was exactly what happened when Erik and I finally arrived in Abisko: dense snow clouds hovered over the mountains encircling us, but we saw clear blue skies directly overhead.
On my first trip to Abisko several years ago, I remember scientist-turned-photographer Peter Rosén telling me that children were not supposed to look at or whistle at the dancing Auroras, or point at them in awe, otherwise the lights would come down and take them away.
Folktales said children were not supposed to look at the Auroras, otherwise the lights would come down and take them away (Credit: Lola Akinmade Åkerström)
Born and bred in Sweden, Rosén had grown up with these stories. Then in 1998, his career as an environmental researcher with the Climate Impacts Research Centre of Umeå University brought him to Abisko. He spent 13 years studying climate change in the Arctic through the Abisko Scientific Research Station. (In 2021, it was recognised as a Centennial Observing Station by the World Meteorological Organization.)
When he arrived in Abisko, Rosén quickly learned about the blue hole and became fascinated by the Northern Lights. He produced his first photographs of the Auroras in 2001, which are now part of permanent installations in galleries around northern Sweden, including the ICEHOTEL in the town of Jukkasjärvi. "My colleagues used to call me a 'free-time researcher, full-time photographer'," he joked.
By 2012, Rosén had quit his work in environmental science to become a full-time photographer and run Lappland Media, teaching travellers how to properly photograph the lights. He recalls one of his guests, who had dreamed of seeing the lights since she was five years old. She had sought them across Canada, Norway and Finland, but to no avail. On her first night in Abisko, she broke down and cried after seeing what Rosén considered a really weak Aurora. Over the coming nights, they witnessed strong spectacular displays together.
Perched close to the summit is the remote Aurora Sky Station, a 20-minute chairlift ride up from its base (Credit: Lola Akinmade Åkerström)
"Seeing how people express their feelings after seeing the lights makes me feel I have the best job in the world," added Rosén. "I've never regretted leaving my life as a researcher, because I'm now living my dream."
I remember my own feeling of awe my first time I saw the lights in Abisko, at the foothills of Mount Nuolja, 900m above sea level. Perched close to the summit is the remote Aurora Sky Station, a 20-minute chairlift ride up from its base. There's no better location to see the blue hole spread over the sparkling lights of Abisko and frozen Lake Torneträsk in the valley below.
This time, as Erik and I ascended the mountain, finally riding the chairlift into pitch darkness after driving through that storm, the experience evoked a feeling of reverence for what we were about to witness: ethereal green lights dancing and folding in the heavens like curtains above us.
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