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Northern Lights / Aurora Borealis / Arsaniit

From August to March when the North is blanketed for long hours in darkness, the skies of Nunavik are often a backdrop to fabulous displays of Northern lights. Also known as aurora borealis, or arsaniit in Inuktitut, these lights can paint a wide rippling green, sometimes red and purple, arc across the night sky. Their vertical rays twist, much the way a giant sheet would blow in a gentle breeze. At intense, frenzied moments, Northern lights may even appear to be falling to the ground.

In scientific terms, this natural phenomenon is said to be caused by energized electrons as they smash into the earth's atmosphere at high speeds. Carried by solar winds, many electrons and protons from the sun are conducted by the earth's magnetic fields to the night side of the planet, before being pulled downwards into the ionosphere. There, they collide with oxygen and nitrogen atoms, knocking them into excited states. As the atoms calm again, radiation, which we perceive as green, red and purple, is emitted several hundreds of kilometres across the night sky.

Some Inuit stories and myths give roles to these mystical lights. To discourage children from playing outside too late, elders often warn that the arsaniit have been known to completely vanish from the night sky carrying with them errant children. It is also said that the dancing lights are sky people playing in the dark of winter and that whistling out loud will make them dance even more furiously. You don't believe it? Come give your whistle a try.

Inuit Perspective

"It is said that, in the past, the Northern Lights were a thing much feared. When they were large and frequent and could not be left behind by those who travelled at night in dogsleds, the travellers would cut their dogs' ears, for a bleeding ear was protection against attacks by the Northern Lights. If they didn't do that, the Inuit who travelled at night in dogsleds would be decapitated by the Northern Lights."
Excerpt from Mitiarjuk's Inuit Encyclopedia written at the request of Bernard Saladin d'Anglure by Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk, Kangiqsujuaq.


All photos on this page are compliments of Gilles Boutin