Above my head, high in the Earth’s atmosphere, an elegant arc, faintly green, stretched across the sky from West to East. We watched as it hovered in the cloudless sky, pinpricks of starry light flickering behind it. I was lucky. On my very first night of Aurora hunting, I saw them. It was only an arc. It didn’t ripple or dance; it didn’t even last very long before fading slowly to black, but it was there. I saw it, and I was mesmerised.
It is hard to describe your feelings when you first encounter the Aurora Borealis, and how prehistoric people must have felt when they saw these strange lights in the night sky, I can barely imagine. Nature suddenly becomes much, much bigger than humankind. These beautiful colours unfurling across the winter sky are the result of violent gale-force solar winds battering the Earth, and a testament to the protective power of our magnetic field.
Even under attack, Nature is graceful and beautiful.
From the first time I saw the lights; I was hooked. An obsession consumed me, and the more I saw, the more I wanted. But after that first night they didn’t return. Three more nights I waited under an unyieldingly blank sky; frustrated, disappointed, empty.
It was over two years before I got another chance to see them. I booked a trip to Iceland, hoping and praying that the lights would show again. Night after night I looked up to the sky, clear and cloudless, but devoid of colour. Even though forecasts told us that activity was present, the lights remained shy. Until the last night, when hope had all but faded, a ghostly cloud drifted across the stars. It didn’t blot their light. It rippled over the horizon and rose high into the sky. Although it didn’t manifest any colour it was a beautiful sight, and all those emotions once again flooded over me. Weak as it was, it was still powerful.
My last trip was only a week ago and, despite my better judgement, my expectations were sky-high. I fanatically checked the aurora forecasts with the zealous enthusiasm of a drug user searching their next hit, and looked at the night sky desperately willing it to explode in a rainbow of colour, crushed by waves of disappointment when it didn’t.
Unfortunately, thick cloud cover due to unseasonably warm winter temperatures has blighted Swedish Lapland this year, and the night of February 27th, 2014, when a huge solar storm hit the Earth, was no exception. As a rare cloudless night treated the UK to spectacular blood-red auroras as far down as South Wales and the Midlands, all I saw was a roll of thick, grey cloud.
At 4am, I was awoken. The skies had cleared and through the window there was a mist only just visible. I pulled on layers of winter clothes, barely bothering to fasten my coat, or lace my boots. Grabbing my camera and tripod, I ran outside. Above me, once again faint and ghostly white, the sky was alive. In every direction it moved and heaved, darting playfully across the sky with surprising speed. A wave of ecstasy washed over me, and the bitter disappointment of only a few hours ago melted away.
An hour later, when the morning sunlight started to creep across the horizon, we went to our beds, exhausted but happy.
I don’t know when my next Northern Lights fix will be, not for a while once I move to India in July I wouldn’t have thought, but I know that my search for them is not yet over.
Have you seen the Northern Lights, or would you like to? Please leave a comment below.