Near Sommarøy / Troms, Norway / February 2016
On the magical experience of witnessing the Northern Lights, the less magical scientific explanation for the phenomenon, and believing what you’re seeing.
Light glinting off the shields of female spirits (Valkyries) escorting the most heroic warriors to their final resting place. Swans holding a competition to fly the farthest north, creating light waves from the flapping of their wings after becoming caught in ice. An arctic fox running across the tundra and lifting snow into the sky, or causing sparks by brushing his tail against tall mountains. The spirits of the dead playing soccer with a walrus skull in the afterlife.
How often do we get to experience real magic? So much of the journey to adulthood is laced with disillusionment – Santa Claus isn’t real; the Tooth Fairy isn’t real; Hogwarts isn’t real. There is a perfectly scientific explanation for the aurora borealis,1but this doesn’t diminish any of its supernatural quality, as evidenced by the beautiful imagery from folklore above which attempts to explain the lights. Witnessing the lights firsthand is nothing short of discovering that magic exists in the world. You must reach for legend to describe it.
Experiencing the lights requires quite a bit of determination, not the least of which is electing to spend several days above the Arctic Circle in the middle of winter. The lights require darkness, clear skies, and a lucky point within the auroral oval, a band which mostly comprises northern Scandinavia and Finland, Iceland, Greenland, and northern Canada and Alaska.2This was how we found ourselves voluntarily in Tromsø in early February. For a city so far north, Tromsø has remarkable infrastructure and is humming with life, mostly in support of the numerous visitors that descend upon it in the winter months. The standard greeting, “Did you see them??”, is often followed by anxious talk about the weather and cloud cover for the coming days.
The aurora borealis is beautiful, but fickle, shy, flighty. In keeping with our oldest gender stereotypes, society has naturally imposed a female persona on the lights. Perhaps we can blame Galileo in part for this, as he is commonly credited for coining “aurora borealis”, which comes from the name for the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek name for the north wind, Boreas. Today, tour operators often refer to the lights more familiarly – “Lady Aurora,” or the “Green Lady.” As there’s never a guarantee on seeing the lights, we decided to at least increase our odds by chasing them with a guide. We drove about a half hour outside Tromsø until the guide pulled over into one of the intermittent semi-circles carved into the three-foot snowbanks that adorn the roads. He started gesticulating excitedly in the direction of the sky. “Look!” he said, “We found the lights!”
Now, I’m not going to pretend that this was the epiphanic moment – that came later. This first moment was more confused, because he seemed to be pointing at a clump of unremarkable grey clouds visible over a mountain peak. Nonetheless, we dutifully unfolded our tripod, set up a camera and snapped some long-exposure pictures. When the images appeared, we were shocked to see a streak of bright, neon green where the clouds were: finally, the northern lights. Was this the death knell of magic? Had we come all this way to see a phenomenon spectacular only on a camera screen?
Enter the limitations of the human body. We rely on cones (for daytime) and rods (for nighttime) in our eyes to detect light and produce vision. The aurora borealis itself is colored depending on the atmospheric particles involved: oxygen produces green, nitrogen produces blue or red. But in the darkness it is usually only the rods (which detect in black and white) that can sense the faint light given off by the aurora borealis, thus delivering it in shades of grey. In contrast, a DSLR camera’s sensors, coupled with long exposure times, can detect far more in the dark than our eyes. This is quite a jarring realization – that the world contains such stunning beauty that our limited sensory ranges cannot detect. It made me wonder how others with varying numbers of cones and rods might experience the lights, or even how animals might view them. All of this is not to say that the lights are disappointing – the opposite is true – but only that they are a truly individual, almost spiritual experience. What you are seeing is not what your camera sees, or even what the person next to you may be seeing.
From the first moment we witnessed the lights, they became steadily stronger. By the time we drove out to a sandy beach overlooking Sommarøy, the aurora had spread out above us in its full glory, growing ever brighter in the faintest of greens (at least that’s how it appeared to me). We packed ourselves into insulated outfits which looked like hazmat suits and lay on the beach under the stars, sipping hot chocolate, listening to the waves crash, and picking out constellations. At one point we saw a shooting star, leaving an improbable arc across the sky, passing too quickly to catch any of the wishes we flung at it. But mostly, we watched the unmistakable lights dance above us, constantly changing. They formed undulating bands, curtains, wisps and pillars. The lights pulsated – alive – flickering with an otherworldly glow. This was the magic, once in a lifetime moment I’d waited for, the experience of myth.
Everyone who witnesses the lights must create their own legend. Mine: Odin, in a joyful and celebratory mood, ribbon dances with a thread of fire.
And . . .