Bucket List Moments: The Northern Lights
I just read that 2015 has been a bumper year for sightings of the aurora borealis – the famed Northern Lights. Those lucky enough to catch them have been treated to some of the most spectacular natural light shows in recent history.
I, on the other hand, am in the sunny and most decidedly tropical Bahamas. Here the chances of seeing an aurora are marginally lower than the chances of being eaten by a polar bear. But two years ago I was lucky enough to visit Iceland, where I did get a taste of the Northern Lights. Although whether I actually can claim to have “seen” them is a different matter altogether. You be the judge.
Some technical background first.
An aurora is a natural light phenomenon caused when “charged particles, mainly electrons and protons, enter the atmosphere from above, causing ionisation and excitation of atmospheric constituents, and consequent optical emissions”. A long way of saying an aurora is what you get when charged particles from the sun travel to earth and collide with gas particles in the air.
In travel magazines the pictures you’ll see of an aurora invariably include a night sky swirling with strange, rippling curtains of multi-colored light. This happens, but it is very rare. For the most part an aurora appears as a greenish glow over the horizon. Kind of like what might happen if the sun suddenly changed color and started rising at the wrong time in the wrong place.
Because the particles creating an aurora are attracted to the earth by magnetism, they tend to enter the atmosphere at the magnetic poles. So the further north or south you go the greater your chances of seeing an aurora. In the southern hemisphere the phenomenon is known as the aurora australis. In the northern hemisphere it is called the aurora borealis – the Northern Lights.
Auroras are both ethereal and eerie, one of nature’s greatest freak shows. They make no sense, and seem to defy everything we think we know about the sky and earth, light and dark, night and day. Not surprisingly, therefore, auroras have always held a special place in mythology and legend. In many ancient cultures the lights of an aurora were thought to be the spirits of ancestors. In Inuit lore, auroras are the ghosts of hunted animals; in medieval times, they were considered to be indicators of war and famine to come.
The best places to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights are in Alaska, parts of Canada, Norway, Siberia, and Greenland. And Iceland, an isolated little island floating all on its own in the cold, far-north of the Atlantic Ocean, pressed right up against the edge of the Arctic Circle.
Auroras are generally only visible at night, and when skies are clear. In the northern hemisphere winter is considered the best time for aurora spotting – that is, when the night never ends and the air is cold and clear. To maximize chances of seeing an aurora you are best off being somewhere with low light and atmospheric pollution, like a remote rural area well away from cities and towns. You should also pick a night where there is no or little moon. And finally, aurora activity is cyclical. Like with wine some years are better than others. Apparently, aurora activity peaks every 11 years.
Bottom line: spotting an aurora can be hit and miss. Even if the conditions are absolutely perfect, some nights it is there; some nights it isn’t. It is one of those utterly frustrating things that you can build a whole trip around, and then never get to see.
Some technology background next.
My cousin is a tech-geek.
David makes a living writing the code that enables major corporate web-sites to operate. This is no surprise to anyone who knows him: since as early as I can remember he was always into anything with a microchip inside of it. If ever a new gadget, gizmo or thingamajig is released, Dave is the first to own it. He was the first person I know with a laptop, an iPhone, an iPad, digital binoculars, and hundreds of other bizarre devices you probably don’t know exist. Long before I was even aware of what a computer was, Dave was programming a blinking green triangle to move around a screen. I think at the time he was six. Enough said.
Of late, David and his wife Lara have become enthusiastic amateur photographers. Although this is a bit of an understatement, because watching a tech-geek take up photography is like watching a child run wild in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. They go completely bonkers.
Dave and Lara now travel with three suitcases – one for their clothes and the rest for their photographic equipment. They have half a dozen camera bodies, lenses of every shape and size, flashes and tripods and filters and polarizers and light meters. Not to mention backpacks, storage discs, back-up storage discs, batteries, spare batteries, cables, power cords and power adaptors, and a laptop on which photos can be instantaneously viewed and edited.
Add to that lots of reading on the subject, a few weekend study courses and tons of travel, and the result is pretty much what you’d expect. That is, my cousins take some truly awesome pictures (check out @chiefmillso for Dave’s work and @lovewalkeatsee for Lara’s).
So when Dave rang me in London one miserable, cold February day and said that the following week he and Lara would be visiting Iceland and would I like to join them, I knew I’d be in for a photography smorgasbord. The fact that Dave will eat just about anything didn’t hurt either – in him I’d have a willing accomplice, to join me in sampling local Icelandic delicacies like puffin burger and rotted shark meat.
But what really sealed the deal was when Dave said: “… and, at this time of year, the chances of seeing the Northern Lights are pretty good”.
I didn’t need a second invitation. A week later, I was on the plane north.
It is now my fourth night in Iceland.
Over the past several days I have eaten more weird and wonderful foods than I could ever have imagined – reindeer, whale blubber, sheep eye-balls, fermented whey that tastes like fish vomit. I have seen some of the most magnificent scenery in the world – strange moonscapes of glaciers, barren mountains and wide, windswept plains. I have luxuriated in the blue lagoon, and I have hiked up the side of an ancient volcano (now dormant, thankfully). (See my previous posts for more on Iceland: Oddities in Iceland Part I and Oddities in Iceland Part II).
But I have not yet seen the Northern Lights. Which is bugging me immensely – a trip to Iceland without seeing the aurora would be wholly incomplete.
Tonight we are staying in a small hotel on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, a bit of land jutting out into the harsh sea on Iceland’s west coast. The hotel is in a treeless field, near the sea, all on its own. There is not another sign of human life within miles of where we are. We are, as they say, in the middle of nowhere. It is bitterly cold, the sky is cloudless, and there is hardly any moon. Tomorrow night we are returning to Reykjavik. So it is pretty clear to me: if I am ever going to see the Northern Lights, tonight’s the night.
Lara has gone to bed; David and I are sitting in the lounge of the hotel, chatting. I mention to him that I am really, really, really, anxious to see the Northern Lights.
Thankfully, my cousin is a tech-geek.
He pulls out his mobile phone, and what do you know, he has on it an app especially for this purpose. His app somehow tracks the strength of solar flares, matches that up against GPS location and local weather conditions, and hey presto – you get a precise time estimate as to when your chances of seeing the aurora are best, wherever you may be. I am now convinced: there really is an app for everything in this crazy wired world we live in.
Dave consults his aurora-tracking app, and tells me that at around 11.45pm, if the weather holds and we look to the north-west standing on one-leg and squinting through our left eye, we have a low-to-moderate chance of seeing the aurora. Admittedly not much to go by, but I am still ecstatic. It is now 9.30pm, so we talk a bit, I fill in a crossword, and we sip mugs of hot tea while we wait.
At around 11.15pm we head outside to prepare ourselves for our date with aurora borealis. Only there is a minor technical problem: a ferocious wind has started to blow, and it is cold. And by cold, I mean a mind-numbing bone-chilling “we are going to instantly die of hypothermia if we stand here for more than a few minutes” kind of cold. In less than thirty seconds I lose all sensation of my nose; thirty seconds later my fingers go too, never mind that they are inside of thick leather gloves. This is not working out quite as I’d planned.
Now we have a dilemma: return to the warmth of the hotel but give up on seeing the Northern Lights; or persevere, in which case seeing the Northern Lights will probably be the last thing we ever do.
Thankfully, my cousin is a tech-geek.
He tells me that he has configured his camera such that it can operate by remote control via the internet. The remote control is on his iPad (another app, d’uh). With it he can program the camera to take a photo every two seconds, which will then be streamed via his mobile phone to his iPad, and on to his laptop. Or something fancy like that. Once on his laptop, the images can be instantly viewed.
Sounds like a plan.
So we hastily set up the camera and go back indoors. Dave attends to the technical stuff, and I do my bit. That is, I find the hotel’s late night room service menu and order us two hot chocolates, a massive slice of cheese-cake, and two molten lava chocolate puddings. Dave looks horrified when this mountain of sugar arrives, but I think he is secretly pleased. We are, after all, cut from the same genetic cloth.
At the appointed time, the aurora arrives. The photo stream shows a faint green tinge emerging on the horizon. It is so faint I can barely see it. We wait a few minutes, but nothing changes: it is just a faint green light, barely visible. This is an anti-climax of monumental proportions, frankly, and I am now thoroughly pissed off. Even reaching the gooey molten center of the chocolate pudding is unable to lift my spirits.
Thankfully, my cousin is a tech-geek.
He sets to work on his remote control, extending the exposure period of the camera outside. He also sets to work on his laptop, downloading photos, applying filters and digitally “cleaning” and “scrubbing” stuff, before electronically stitching the live picture stream together, into a composite photo-video of sorts.
All of a sudden, the faint green glow on the horizon becomes a bright curtain of light. It moves and shifts through the sky like an unearthly phantom. There are a billion stars twinkling in the sky above. The Milky Way looks like a luminous white cloud.
It is incredible, and I forget totally it is all on a screen. Technology and nature have fused together. We sit there silently, and watch this digitally enhanced but real-time aurora borealis show for almost an hour. While sipping our hot chocolates, and with a crackling log-fire to keep us warm.
I am amazed, and beyond mesmerized. The Northern Lights are spectacular. But more than this – I have seen magic. Like an alchemist of old, David has waved a sorcerer’s wand and something truly astonishing has materialized, right in front of my eyes, conjured literally from out of thin air.
So there you have it – my story of how I saw the Northern Lights. Well, sort of saw the Northern Lights, I guess. True, I may not have actually seen the aurora borealis, but I certainly experienced this amazing phenomenon, and in a way that I will never forget.
Isn’t that what a Bucket List Moment should be?