I recently ventured north of the Arctic Circle in the middle of winter. As you can probably tell from the title of this post, it wasn’t just because I wanted to frolic in the snow, ride husky sleds and marvel at the rare appearances of the sun (though I enjoyed doing all of these things), but because I wanted to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights, which are more likely to be spied during the darkness of long winter nights.
Incredible videos like this one – a time-lapse of images taken from the International Space Station – had whet my appetite for auroras:
Of course, during my stay in Lapland (in northern Finland on the shores of lake Inari) I didn’t see a full sky of dazzling auroras like those captured from the ISS, but I was treated to some beautiful shifting green threads on a clear night, and more distant displays that were bright enough to be visible even on overcast nights.
The aurora borealis has always seemed magical and not-quite-real to me, but funnily enough, seeing it with my own eyes only made that feeling stronger, so I thought I’d do a short post listing some reasons (five, to be exact) why auroras remind me of magic – and in the process, attempt to explain what it’s like to see them.
Half the Time You Think You’re Imagining Them
When searching the night sky for a glimpse of an aurora, it’s very easy to imagine things. You see the light reflected from a nearby town, or the flash of distant headlights, or a ghostly after-imprint on your retinas, and you wonder: is that an aurora? You can be staring at something thinking, “Is that one? No, it’s not. It’s probably just an artificial light or my imagination or… no wait, it’s getting brighter, it’s moving… wow, it’s green!” – and you realise you were looking at an aurora the whole time. Of course, sometimes it really is just the glow of a street lamp.
Afterward, You Might Doubt What You’ve Seen
Because auroras can vanish so quickly, or peter out slowly to something that looks less like an aurora and more like a trick of the eye, I often found myself turning to people around me to confirm they’d seen the same thing I had. Even now I’m kind of worried someone will pop up and say: “Those weren’t auroras, silly! That was just the nightly display of the Great Northern Lake Light House,” even though I know it couldn’t have been anything else, and the displays were an obvious aurora green.
The Colours Are Eerie and Magical
I’m not used to seeing green or magenta light in the natural world, so it’s very strange to see these colours dancing across the sky. I only saw green auroras, but that alien tinge on the horizon at night was quite an eerie, creepy sight. I can easily imagine early humans coming up with all sorts of fantastical explanations for it. What’s more, in fiction green light is often used for flowing magic, bubbling potions and hovering UFOs, so it comes with all of those associations.
The Scientific Explanation Can Be Hard to Grasp
I’ve read explanations of what causes the Northern and Southern Lights, but I always struggle to understand and remember the finer details. Sure, the general concept is easy to grasp: solar winds from the sun hit the earth’s magnetic field, sending charged particles into the earth’s atmosphere near the poles. These particles excite gas molecules and create light. Articles like this one on the BBC provide a good basic explanation with diagrams… but to understand how it works on a micro level with regard to solar winds, magnetic lines, particles and ionization, is not easy (e.g. I had trouble following this more detailed Wikipedia explanation).
They Are a Reminder of Our Forcefield
One of the amazing things about auroras is they are evidence of our planet’s magnetic field, and how it prevents a lot of harmful solar radiation from reaching us. Like the forcefield of a spaceship or a magician, it deflects incoming particles in arcs of brilliant colour. This GIF does a good job of showing what it looks like when a blast of solar wind hits earth’s magnetosphere (earth is the black dot). I can’t help but feel there’s something magical and poetic about that.
So that’s why I think gazing at auroras feels a lot like glimpsing something from a science fiction or fantasy story. Although I saw them several times, each time it only made me more hopeful that I might glimpse yet bigger and brighter ones… so who knows, maybe one day I’ll find an excuse to go hunting for them again.
Have you seen an aurora? Was your experience similar or different to mine? Let me know in the comments.