Aurora Borealis

Oct 20, 2012 | 0 comments

Last week I got to experience for the second time in my life, the most beautiful phenomenon on the planet: the Northern Lights, or the Aurora Borealis. I usually track the aurora forecast on the Geophysical Institute website, which rates the aurora activity level on a scale of 1-9; this night, it spiked suddenly to 7 (even though it was only predicted to be a 3), almost the highest you can ever hope to see it. Even better, the sky was totally clear.

Around 10pm, one of my housemates came in and said they were visible. Wasting no time, I grabbed the Nikon, a tripod, a coat, and boots and dashed outside into the bitter night air. At first faint but growing in intensity, the night sky was smeared with a grayish-green smudge right overhead as if someone had streaked it with glow-in-the-dark paint. My other housemate and I made our way across the street to the open field where it was a little darker.
Northern Lights over the back of town

I set the camera to a 30 second exposure at F2.5 and let it do its thing while I craned my neck to take in the brilliant display overhead. For over an hour we stood out in the freezing cold as the lights grew brighter and brighter. A relentlessly driving wind howled eerily through a chain link fence nearby, making the aurora seem even more ethereal, a full multi-sensory experience.

Lights over some old shacks

It occurred to me as I stood there that there really are no words — at least in English — to describe those lights. In all reality, they’re just solar electrons colliding with oxygen and nitrogen atoms in the upper atmosphere, but the fact that such an ancient and mundane natural event can evoke a human feeling of such awe-inspiring power is impossible to fathom.

Had to do it… 😉

I guess that’s why there are so many stories and legends about their existence. I was doing research at work about them the next day, and found that, not surprisingly, every northern indigenous group has its own beliefs regarding the aurora. Some see it as the spirits of dead animals, ancestors, warriors, or children dancing in the skies; many beliefs advise against whistling when the aurora is out, for fear they will swoop down and take you away; and still others try to attract the northern lights by banging pots and pans when they’re out because they area sign of good luck.

Although I’m not superstitious myself, the lights in the sky that night stunned my every sense. At one point they were so bright, I thought they would come down and touch the ground as a spike of white, green, pink, and purple dipped and shimmered overhead.

I expect I’ll be seeing a lot more of the Northern Lights as winter marches on, but I don’t think I will ever get used to them.


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