1 December 2019
I remember in the early 1950s on a clear and extremely lucky night in Northern Indiana, the skies were actually unpolluted enough to see slight colorings of the Aurora Borealis. Sometimes, faint colorations of the Aurora can be sighted in Northern Minnesota. As Agent Fox Mulder knows, the Aurora is out there somewhere. This week, I am in Lapland in search of those colorful curtains of dancing light.
My friend Nancy and I spent our Thanksgiving flying a big bird rather than eating one. Departing the US, we escape massive storms and vigorous snow to fly into a region of intense cold and even more active weather systems.
We stayed the night at the Helsinki Airport Hotel Pilotti before boarding our Finnair flight to Ivalo, some hour and a half north and about 200 miles beyond the Arctic Circle. Ivalo is a Finnish Lapland village known for sightings of the Northern Lights and as the folkloric home of Santa Claus. I hope to sight at least one of these during our time in Finland and it is not the one with the red hat.
We book a room at Hotel Kultahippu (Gold Nugget). Its lounge is warm and lively. I am in gastronomic heaven dining on Escarcots, a dish of huge snails submerged in a hollandaise sauce with small chunks of reindeer. We met a new Finnish friend, Unto, who introduces us to Jägermeister and after our third shot all global problems were solved.
During Ivalo’s brief 2-3 hours of daylight, we take bracing walks while acclimating to Arctic weather. There is lots of snow, the temperature is a freezing -4 Celsius, and amazingly we are not the only crazy people hiking down the plowed footpaths.
I was told to dress for the dry cold of the Arctic, supposedly a cold that is pleasantly different than freezing cold temperatures experienced elsewhere. Bundled in layers, each extremity covered and protected from the elements, I soon learned that perhaps these Laplanders are correct. So what are the major differences between dry cold and damn freezing cold?
The first thing I notice is there is little condensation. Kids here miss the fun of seeing their breath fog the air. They also miss having an icy ski mask freeze to their face. Also, the snow doesn’t cling to clothing as it is so dry it just dusts off. This also means kids generally can’t make snowmen or throw snowballs at each other. The snow, though on the ground for a few days, is still white and fluffy; one doesn’t shovel snow here as much as sweep it away. And in general, I’m not seeing the layers of ice generally created by the melting and refreezing of snow. At the same time, even a gentle breeze can create blinding clouds of snow and dangerous whiteouts.
The roads and walking paths are neatly plowed. Shoppers are pushing ski-carts and are undaunted by the cold and lack of sun.
On 26 November at 12:06pm, the sun exited their horizon, not to return before 11:56 on 17 January. Currently, there exists a dull twilight lasting about three hours. Breakfast at 11am is in dusk and one has about two more hours for a walk before it is dark. I believe all the Christmas lights are indicative of attempts to brighten an otherwise dark day. Perhaps it is hardest to adjust to this lack of luminescence.
Dressed in layers of my unused ski paraphernalia, I ask myself, “What am I doing here?” I swore last winter as I left a very cold Minneapolis, I would never visit cold weather again. I am used to 60-70 degrees even in winter. I gave up skiing down mountains a few years ago. So why the Hell am I in Finland?
I am here to join my friend in a quest to see the Northern Lights – that illusive Aurora Borealis.
As early as 1619, Galileo named these dancing lights after the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora. Borealis comes from Greek for north wind. By any name the aurora, northern lights, southern lights, polar lights are a natural phenomena of Earth’s sky seen mostly in the higher latitudes of the Arctic (northern aurora) and Antarctic (southern aurora). Auroras are the result of disturbances in the magnetosphere caused by solar wind. A magnetosphere is a region of space surrounding an astronomical object, like Earth, where charged particles are affected by that object’s magnetic field. This magnetosphere not only blocks the evil solar radiation that may eventually destroy our planet, it also interacts with the sun’s charged particles of solar wind to create the incredibly fascinating and beautiful auroras.
The auroras occur in a band known as the “aurorial oval” around both polar regions and emit light of varying color and brightness. The size of the oval depends upon the strength of the magnetic storm. The aurora is out there but conditions for seeing these bands of color depend upon what is above you – the darker and clearer the sky the better.
The lights seen within the auroral oval may be directly overhead, but from farther away, they illuminate the poleward horizon as a greenish glow, or sometimes a faint red, as if the Sun were rising from an unusual direction. The aurora lights most often occur between 55 and 95 miles above ground but can extend to hundreds of miles. The lights can take many forms ranging from a mild glow on the horizon to arcs curving across the sky. Occasionally rays of light accompany the arcs. Some describe the auroras as curtains because of the tendency to undulate within the arcs. A lucky observer might see the aurora coronas, a crown of spectacular light made up of dancing curtains and pillars of light.
The Aurora Borealis can reflect a wide range of colors depending upon the wavelengths of light. And what we are able to see depends upon the ability of our eyes to process its colors. Higher altitudes reflect scarlet and crimson; lower altitudes are dominated by greens, which are most common, and blues and purple lights. And colors as they flare and fade can also mix. Like young painters creating new combinations of color, the aurora can mix a red and green to produce pink, orange or yellow hues. There are few limits to nature and physics. As red, green, and blue are the primary colors, practically any coloring might be possible.
Auroras change over the night. They begin with glows and may progress towards coronas. They tend to fade in the opposite order. And auroras emit a noise. When the sun’s charged particles hit Earth’s cold inversion later, a noise similar to a hissing or crackling sound may be heard.
Photography of the aurora is difficult. It will be cold and hands, noses and batteries will suffer. Images of the auroras are common today because of the higher sensitivities of digital cameras. However, due to changes occurring during long exposures, the results are somewhat unpredictable. Most of the spectacular photos that I see online are the result of expert photography, professional film development, and luck. For me, my eyes will do the looking and my iPhone 11 Pro will do the photo shots.
Nothing is guaranteed. I can only hope that the Sun and its solar winds, Earth’s magnetic fields, the lack of clouds and a sliver of a quarter moon allows for the a sighting of the light show that brought us here.