- Lola Akenmade Schekerström
- BBC Travel*
“I’m not really sure if we’ll ever see the northern lights,” my fellow video producer Eric Jarker said, watching the fog around us.
I was driving along the only road that leads to one of the northernmost cities in Sweden – Abisko, located 250 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle. We were caught in the middle of a snowstorm with no clear view, and all around us, the Abisko National Park mountains looked like a white sea.
We were traveling to photograph the ephemeral aurora, a stunning natural light show that occurs when explosions on the sun’s surface – so-called solar flares – collide with gases in Earth’s atmosphere, creating shimmering streaks tinged with red, green and purple.
To see the Northern Lights activity, we need a clear, icy, clear sky, not the winter storm we were going through.
“Believe me,” I assured him. “we will see.”
I’ve been here before with similar storms and quickly learned that Abisko has a “blue hole” – a patch of clear sky that provides good visibility all day, regardless of nearby weather patterns, stretching 10-20 square kilometers over the village, Torneträsk Lake and Abisko National Park . This phenomenon makes Abisko one of the best places in the world to observe the aurora borealis regularly.
“The Abisko region and northern Sweden are really an ideal place to watch,” says Eric Kelstrom, professor of climatology at the Swedish Institute of Hydrology and Meteorology. “This is because it is located in an elliptical region around the Earth’s magnetic poles and has a very long dark season (the aurora observations occur between mid-August and mid-April), so there are strong auroras. It is only necessary that there are no clouds.”
Kilstrom adds that Abisko owes this feature to its location on the eastern side of the Scandinavian Alps, which straddles the Swedish-Norwegian border.
Häkan Grod, research support coordinator and deputy director at Abisko Scientific Research Station, explains in more detail.
“The prevailing winds in this region come from the west, which means that moist air masses coming from the Atlantic need to rise to higher (cooler) altitudes to cross the Scandinavian Alps. And when that happens, clouds form, and the air loses moisture. With the precipitation. In Abisko, on the other side of the mountains, the air becomes dry and descends to lower elevations – the clouds dissipate and the “blue hole” appears.
So it’s no wonder Abisko attracts professional photographers like Jaråker and myself, as well as travelers who want to make this item on their to-do list: see the aurora borealis.
The passion that attracts
Photographer and entrepreneur Chad Blakely moved there in 2018 when he was a newly married young man.
Blakely and his Swedish wife, Linna, decided to give up their careers in the United States. Combining his passion for the outdoors with a chance to better understand Linnea culture, Blakley landed a job cleaning up the famous STF Abisko Turiststation in Abisko National Park.
“I learned about the blue hole from experience,” Blakely says. Early in his career, he spent every possible night photographing the Northern Lights in the National Park.
“You could see a gap in the clouds right above the village, while the sky above the horizon was often cloudy and filled with snow in all directions,” he says.
In 2010, Linnea and Chad Blakley founded a tour agency specializing in the aurora borealis called Lights Over Lapland.
For people who can’t travel to that remote part of Sweden, they’ve installed a fixed camera that, for more than a decade, has taken a picture every five minutes for an annual internet audience of 8-10 million people. Later, the company added a camera that streams live broadcasts, so people can view the lights in real time.
“We have observed the aurora borealis systematically, on nearly every clear night, for more than ten years,” Blakely says. “And I’m proud to say that the blue hole helped Abisko establish his reputation.”
Blakley is installing the world’s first real-time 8k camera to view the aurora borealis in 360 degrees, which will allow people to view the phenomenon live next season using virtual reality glasses.
The aurora borealis is the main attraction in Abisko in the winter months, but the local climate also offers other amazing events, such as the very rare “moon rainbow”, also known as the lunar halo. It occurs when light from the moon is reflected and refracted by water droplets and ice crystals suspended in the air around the blue hole.
But for Anette Niia and Ylva Sarri, who are part of the original Sami community in Sweden, Abisko are so much more than just their blue holes.
About 70,000 indigenous Sami live in the arctic and subarctic regions of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula in Russia. This area is collectively called sabmy.
Nya and Sarri have been visiting Abisko since childhood because it is also the reindeer breeding area for their families. Niia explains that the local climate of the area makes the snow thinner in winter, and with this, spring comes early, bringing food for reindeer and other animals.
“A blue hole is something that travel agencies offer, but for us Sami, Abisko is special for other reasons,” she says.
Surrey and also has ties to tourism in the region. Their ancestors in their families were mountain guides for visitors in the early 1900s, and today, they are the founders of the Scandinavian company Sami Photoadventures, which promotes a variety of outdoor experiences in Abisko, including tours to see the Northern Lights.
“We, as guides, know that we can go from a closed snowstorm to an open sky within 100 metres,” says Nia. “It’s pure magic!”
And that is exactly what happened when Jarraquer and I finally reached Abisko: thick clouds of snow flew over the mountains around us, while we saw the clear blue sky right above us.
‘Best job in the world’
On my first trip to Abisko in years, I met scientist-turned-photographer Peter Rosén. I remember him telling us that children were not allowed to look or whistle at the dancing dawn, or to point at them with admiration, lest the lights go out and carry them away.
Born and raised in Sweden, Rosen grew up listening to these stories. He became an environmental researcher at the Climate Impact Research Center at Umeå University, also in northern Sweden. And in 1998, his career brought him back to Abisko.
He has studied Arctic climate change for 13 years at Abisko Scientific Research Station. In 2021, the station was recognized as a Centennial Monitoring Station by the World Meteorological Organization.
Once in Abisko, Rosén quickly knew the Blue Hole and was fascinated by the northern lights. In 2001 he took his first photographs of the aurora, which are now part of permanent exhibitions in galleries across northern Sweden, including the Ice Hotel in the town of Jukkasjärvi.
“My colleagues called me ‘full-time photographer and part-time researcher’,” he jokes.
In 2012, Rosen actually quit his job in environmental sciences to be a full-time photographer and created Lappland Media, which teaches visitors how to properly photograph the aurora.
One visitor remembers who dreamed of seeing the lights since she was five years old. She tried to see the aurora borealis in Canada, Norway and Finland to no avail. But on her first night in Abisko, she broke down in tears after seeing what Rosen calls a very faint dawn. On the following nights, they witnessed wonderful light shows together.
“Seeing how people express their feelings after seeing the lights makes me feel like I have the best job in the world,” according to Rosén. “I have never regretted giving up my life as a researcher, because now I am living my dream.”
I remember feeling amazed the first time I saw the lights in Abisko, on the slopes of Mount Nolja, 900 meters above sea level. Near the summit is the remote ski resort of Aurora, a 20-minute cable car ride from its base.
There’s no better place to see the blue hole stretching above the twinkling lights of Abisko and the frozen lake of Tornitsk in the valley below.
This time, when Eric Jarker and I finally climbed the mountain via cable car in total darkness after driving through that storm, the experience awakened a sense of awe in the landscape we were about to witness: ethereal green lights danced and crossed the sky, as if they were curtains above us.
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