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Spain's dazzling illuminations: Northern Lights in southern Europe?
By thinkSPAIN Team Sun, Dec 1, 2019
NOW THAT the days are getting shorter and night is falling earlier, hundreds of thousands of people on earth will be checking the daily forecast to see if they have a chance of catching the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights – just as residents in parts of Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and Chile were eagerly watching the evening skies six months ago in the hope of gaining a rare glimpse at the southern version, the Aurora Australis.
Even though they usually appear in the depths of winter, three years ago in September they were so bright one night over Iceland that the whole of Reykjavík turned off its street lamps and home lighting, because they didn't need them.
Hang on. Isn't this supposed to be a website about Spain?
So, why are we talking about Iceland, let alone New Zealand?
Just be patient and read on...
Getting the green light
All types of legend, especially in Nordic mythology, offered their theories as to what the Aurora Borealis really was – spirits that only came out at night dancing in the sky, celestial battles, the glint from the Valkyrian maidens' armour as they led the souls of slain warriors chosen by Odin and Tyr to Valhalla...but having studied the Northern Lights since the 17th century, scientists have put paid to all these romantic notions by revealing they're all about electrical currents.
Up in the ionosphere, some 100 kilometres (60 miles) above the earth's surface, when a flow of charged particles from the sun reaches the atmosphere of our planet, they are drawn towards the Poles. Here, they collide with atoms and molecules in the atmosphere and explode into a series of spectacular green, dancing waves – or sometimes rainbow-coloured, like the ones in Lietzen, Germany, in the second picture.
Wherever you are on earth, though, there's no guarantee you'll see them, even if you're right on top of one of the Poles. But those who have managed to witness them will agree that once in a lifetime is enough to fulfil your spirit.
So, perhaps, if you're really determined, you might have to just book a one-way ticket to Svalbard (pack your thermals) and stay there until the sky goes green.
Although not necessarily, says Spanish meteorologist José Miguel Viñas.
“It's a phenomenon that's mainly linked to regions close to the Poles, but sometimes, the sun gives off more particles than usual and causes a geo-magnetic storm. When that happens, the intensity of the flow of particles is much greater, as is the distance they travel – they're not then limited to areas close to the Arctic or Antarctic, but instead can be seen at medium latitudes,” Viñas explains.
And it seems this geo-magnetic storm happens more often than we think.
So...in theory, you could see the Northern Lights from Spain?
Yes, says Viñas. Sun particles are abundant enough that there is actually at least one Aurora Borealis over Spain every two years – and they're more likely to happen over the shortest, darkest days of the year.
Well, why haven't we seen any, then?
It could be we're not trying hard enough. But, as anyone who's gone Aurora-hunting in Viking territory will know, even a concerted and sustained effort might not be a guarantee that we'll spot them.
Northern Spain is where you're more likely to see them, although not exclusively; the bigger the geo-magnetic sun-storm and the more particles released, the more likely you are to see them further south in the country.
High altitudes help, but it's more crucial to go somewhere that's in complete darkness – away from town or city centres, away from residential zones, to somewhere totally free from smog, smoke, or light pollution, and on a cloudless night.
Has anyone seen them?
Anecdotal evidence suggests they have been spotted several times, says Viña, but on two very specific occasions, they were so bright that everyone saw them and were even able to take clear photographs. Before the days of digital cameras, in some cases.
The last time they were this bright was in November 2003, when residents in Gijón (Asturias) spent the evening gazing in wonder at the sky and digging out their cameras.
And in the winter of 1989, stunned locals in several parts of Galicia did likewise.
This time, they were also visible, albeit fleetingly, in other parts of the north, although only in those areas with no cloud at all and which were in complete darkness, such as right out in the country.
But the most famous Aurora sighting in Spain actually caused mass hysteria and panic to break out: during the night of January 25 and 26, in 1938, when the Civil War was still raging, most of Spain thought they were caught in the firing line of a mass bombardment. Especially as the lights were bright red.
It wasn't just Spain, though. The Northern Lights were so bright that they could be clearly seen from Rome, Paris and even México DF.
The most powerful sun-storm in documented history, however, was in 1859, known as the 'Carrington' – the Aurora lit up practically the whole of the northern hemisphere one night, and were actually seen in Hawaii and in northern Colombia, just a few kilometres from the equator.
That time, flashing green in the sky was not the end of the story: the telegraph system also shut down.
Whilst latitudes of above 65º – northern Scandinavia, particularly northern Finland and Greenland, Canada, and the north of the US State of Alaska – are where they are most frequently seen, being further south does not necessarily mean you won't ever spot them (as many Scottish residents will have told you a few years ago).
If you're willing to take an extra-long haul flight to see them, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune also have Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis, Viña reveals.
But if you were in Galicia in 2015 you might have spotted the Aurora, too – over the night of November 3 and 4, the very edge of the Aurora field, according to a forecast map (third picture) released from the United States, was just touching Spain's far north-western region.
Unfortunately, all bar small pockets of Galicia would have been too cloudy that night to spot the green glow – despite astronomers staying glued to their telescopes until daylight.
Lights you're guaranteed to see before the year's out
The Aurora may be pretty spectacular, and you may get a fleeting glimpse of them from Spain this winter (if they come every two years and 2003 was the last-known extra-bright sighting, then it stands to reason late 2019 could be a candidate – apparently they crop up on odd-numbered years), but if you don't want to leave it to chance, there are plenty more stunning, beautiful, breathtaking and photograph-worthy light displays all over the country right now, which are set to stay for the next couple of months.
The great Christmas switch-on has mostly happened this week in Spain's largest cities and several of its bigger towns and district capitals – Palma de Mallorca's took place on Thursday, in the Plaza de la Reina, Plaza de Cort and Plaza Joan Carles I, with huge TV screens on the walls of the Casal Solleric and the city hall so it could be seen from as many parts of the metropolitan area as possible.
Sevilla's lights went on last night, with every street twinkling brightly and the entire façade of the massive bullring coated with gold bulbs.
Barcelona's mayoress Ada Colau, in a bid to 'compensate' traders for loss of business during the recent riots over a court verdict sentencing pro-independence politicians to prison, opted to multiply the amount of festive lighting this season – based upon the assumption that, the prettier and more Christmassy the streets, the more likely tourists and visitors would be to travel to Barcelona.
Over 100 kilometres of streets are now bathed in multi-coloured illuminations after the city council shelled out €660,000 on drenching Spain's second-largest metropolitan area with Yuletide spirit – some €50,000 more than last year.
If you're in Barcelona, you can hop on a night visitors' bus and tour all the dazzling light decorations around up to 73 neighbourhoods.
Between December 5 and January 5, a gigantic German-style Christmas market will be set up in the Plaza Portal de la Pau, against a backdrop of the largest lit-up Christmas tree in Catalunya and, temporarily, a 'Barcelona Eye', à la London.
No less bright and glittery is Madrid with its extravagant illuminations and humongous Christmas tree in the central Puerta del Sol square – conveniently, right next to El Corte Inglés and the Gran Vía, so visitors can combine admiring the lights with festive shopping.
Valencia is always beautifully lit, especially the city hall square with a tree the height of a six-storey block of flats and the fountain turned purple – and, like many towns and cities between now and the beginning of January, will have a huge outdoor ice-skating rink, Central Park-style, where members of the public can have a crack at being the next Javier Fernández for as little as €3 to €5, including skate-hire.
But Costa del Sol capital Málaga has been picked as the best in the country this year for its festive illuminations, thanks to its 'magic Christmas forest' with over 730,000 bulbs.
This honour comes from the travel website Holidayguru, which puts Vigo (Pontevedra province, Galicia), Zaragoza (Aragón), and Torrejón de Ardoz (Madrid) in third to fifth place respectively – in fact, in the latter, the Christmas illuminations and other festive attractions such as its fairground and Nativity theme park carry the official declaration of Fiesta of Tourism Interest, a distinction held by many of Spain's most international pageants, marches, fairs and events.
You can see from photograph four why Málaga has come out on top – even though it looks like the inside of a shopping centre, this stunning 'ceiling' is in fact in the open air, covering a main street in a blanket of brightness.
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