Chasing the Northern Lights – Aurora Borealis

It’s funny that with arctic locations, the peak season for visitors is generally the middle of summer. While I accept that midsummer in these cold parts of the globe is crazy good fun due to parties, saunas and the general excitement of the local people who become set free from the extreme climate that traps them for most of the year, I never really understood why you would visit a cold, icy, mountainous part of the world and then try to avoid the cold, ice and mountains. Sure, in the colder months the North is dark and forboding and the extremely good looking inhabitants are obscured by excessive clothing. But on the plus side, you experience life as it is most of the year in these parts…. and you “might” even get to see the Northern Lights.

The first time I ever went to Norway, I visited my friends Maria and Todd in a town called Bodø above the arctic circle. It was in January and the middle of winter. As such, and being so far north, there were 24 hours of darkness. Well, this is actually not quite correct. For about 3 or 4 hours of the day, there is a sort of twilight which allows you to see around you for a while, and then it gets really dark again. In fact, while I was there I didn’t see the sun at all for 3 weeks. My body clock got completely out of whack. I would wake thinking it was still the middle of the night, and find that it was 12 midday. And then my body would either want to fall asleep at 4 pm or not at all. On the plus side, it was extremely good conditions for viewing Northern Lights.

Except that it rained nearly the whole time I was there. On the few cloudless nights, we would drive up a nearby mountain for a good view, only to find that there was no aurora activity. This went on for several weeks. I’d had a great time, partied with some beautiful people, but I decided that it was time to bail south and my mode of transport was to be the Hurtigruten ferry. As I set the date for my departure, a disappointment lingered in the back of my mind. I hadn’t seen the northern lights. I had come all this way north and had ticked all the boxes except that one.

What happened next was the stuff of travel legend. The Hurtigruten docks in Bodø around 3:30 in the morning. Driving out to the dock at the godforsaken hour of 3 am, I was awestruck when the Aurora Borealis suddenly appeared, as unexpectedly as could ever be, as a big green curtain in front of us. We stopped the car and got out and drank in the green glow. It was incredible. Once on board the ship, I watched from the outdoor deck in the darkness on my own as the green lights faded and we started the trip south. I finally went to bed, breathing the salt air, my mind abuzz.

A red and green Aurora over Norway
A red and green Aurora over Norway. Photo: Frank Olsen

I had to wait 2 years to see the Northern Lights again, this time above the arctic circle in Finland. The weather here had been truly unbelievable, 7 days of the clearest driest weather ever with the temperatures starting to reach the early pluses. So I had been doing some serious Aurora hunting! My Finnish girlfriend Outi and I visited Outi’s cousin Kaarina in a beautiful city called Oulu which is about halfway up the length of Finland, maybe 100km from the arctic circle. On a Saturday night we walked through crisp fresh white snow on our way home from a local bar. The air was still and cold and the snow covered everything in a fine white powder and reflected the moonlight in a million different facets. I looked up as a plane left a vapour trail across the full moon, as if to scar the night right down the middle. As if flicked on by a switch, the sky suddenly lit up with Northern Lights, a huge green and red curtain which grew to fill the entire sky! The colours reflected in the white snow and I never had never seen nature more beautiful. We went deeper into the forest to escape the streetlights, and walked to the top of a mound in a clearing. The colours twisted and shifted above us. At one point a huge lilac flower opened above us as if summoning us to heaven. Even the Finns agreed they had never seen a better aurora. With the full moon and stars and everything else! (Another random memory is that a hare went running past us as we sat on the hill. I had never seen one before.)

A typical green curtain of the aurora.
A typical green curtain of the aurora. Photo by United States Air Force Senior Airman Joshua Strang. Yeah, I wish I took this shot.

We went to visit Outi’s grandma, seriously out in the sticks, in a beautiful place called Juorkuna. Apart from the full moon, it was seriously dark there due to no streetlights or city lights and with incredible clear weather so the scene was set. Unfortunately despite depriving myself of sleep and getting a sore neck from looking up and a cold back from lying in the snow I didn’t see much lights, only on the last night when a pretty green curtain lit up the frozen lake.

We then went to Inari again. This is way up in Lapland, wild frontier country. This is the quirky town where we met Pistol Packing Neo Nazi Homosexual Bikie Pete in my previous trip to Finland. Luckily we didn’t see him again- a good thing lest he remembered my failure to accept his invitation of a sauna in his summer cottage and jam donut he offered me, and then let his knuckledusters do the talking. Well, anyway, what a surprise to hop off the bus arriving in Inari and have Northern lights in a beautiful rainbow formation above us… another sleepless night, and the first of many, as the lights did their thing almost incessantly. However, I never saw more colours than the usual green and sometimes a little red. We never had another night like the hillside in Oulu.

The Northern Lights above Inari, Finland. It was taken on a really old film SLR. The exposure time is about 1 minute. You can see how much the stars have moved during that time, due to the rotation of the earth.
The Northern Lights above Inari, Finland. Yes I took this shot myself! Not a bad effort, I was a crappy photographer back then. It was taken on a really old film SLR camera. The exposure time is about 1 minute. You can see how much the stars have moved during that time, due to the rotation of the earth.

Another place to see the northern lights is aboard a jetliner crossing the north pole. If you fly from North America to Northern Asia, or vice-versa, there’s a fairly good chance you’ll flyover the top of the globe since this is the shortest path (look on a globe if you don’t believe me)! I once flew from Chicago to Shanghai. In the winter it is dark over the pole. For some reason I had my window closed and I couldn’t sleep. So I decided to have a look outside the window. To my surprise, there was the green curtain of the northern lights, all around the plane. It kept up dancing until the sky grew light again as we crossed the frozen wastes of Siberia, also an amazing experience, but another story altogether…………….

Geek alert ahead!

The Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights forms in a region around the north pole while the Aurora Australia, the Southern Lights, form in a region around the south pole. Since there is less landmass and less habitation in the region in the southern hemisphere, most people that view the aurora do so in the north. Charged particles radiating from the sun travel at high velocities towards the earth and are accelerated towards the poles by the earth’s magnetic field. They then collide with oxygen or nitrogen atoms in the earth’s atmosphere, exciting or ionising these atoms. When the atoms return to their ground state, the excess energy is released by the emission of a photon of light. The colours of emitted light depend on the atom excited, and the excitation energy of the electron transition.

  • Green – oxygen, up to 240 km in altitude
  • Red – oxygen, above 240 km in altitude
  • Blue – nitrogen, up to 100 km in altitude
  • Purple/violet – nitrogen, above 100 km in altitude

 

Cover Art: Fragments of the Earth

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Matt Edwards

Australian solar power scientist travels the world for 15 years, takes photos, writes stuff, has toothpaste confiscated. I like adventures that involve art, history, science, music, technology and partying. Sometimes all at once...

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