The Highs and Lows of Searching for the Northern Lights

[mks_boxquote align=”right” width=”150″ arrow=”0″]”An obsession consumed me, and the more I saw, the more I wanted”[/mks_boxquote]Relentless blasts of icy wind grasped at the exposed skin of my cheeks, the only flesh not covered in layers of wool and fleece. The moisture of my eyes and the fine hairs on my face prickled as they started to freeze. My toes, numb inside heavy winter boots, had long ago lost all sensation. Despite the plunging Arctic temperatures, I had been standing outside, not moving, for almost an hour. I wore no gloves and my hands were blue, but still I fiddled with the settings on my camera, my fingers clumsy with cold. Even though my apartment, warm, homely and inviting, was less than 100 meters away, I did not want to go inside. I was utterly entranced by the most magical thing I had ever seen in my life.

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.

View from webcam
View from webcam

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.

The lights were faint, but we saw them in Iceland.
The lights were faint, but we saw them in Iceland.

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.

The aurora forecast was strong, but clouds obscured the view.
The aurora forecast was strong, but clouds obscured the view.

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.

The view from the webcam
The view from the webcam

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.

They're behind you!
They’re behind you!

Have you seen the Northern Lights, or would you like to? Please leave a comment below.

Post Author
Runaway Brit

Comments

6 Comments
  1. posted by
    Heather
    Mar 7, 2014 Reply

    I want to see the aurora so badly that I know I’m setting myself up for disappointment. But it’s just so beautiful! I’m sure I’ll hunt for them until I eventually get to experience their full magic. So glad you got to see them!

    • posted by
      Runaway Brit
      Mar 8, 2014 Reply

      It really is the most frustrating experience (unless you luck out and see them straight away). I spent more time on all of my trips staring up at a black sky and saying ‘C’mon, lights’. Even worse when you go on a booked trip and don’t see them, but the groups that went the day before/after did.

      You really have to be prepared to give up sleep altogether and just keep looking outside as often as possible. It helps to stay somewhere near a webcam so you can see what’s going on without getting all your gear on all the time!

  2. posted by
    Catherine
    Mar 13, 2014 Reply

    Have always wanted to see the Northern Lights! Sounds pretty frustrating having to wait, but glad you got your chance eventually :)

    • posted by
      Runaway Brit
      Mar 13, 2014 Reply

      It is so frustrating! I think I experienced every possible emotion within the space of a few hours!

  3. posted by
    Becki
    Mar 16, 2014 Reply

    I love your description of being like a drug user checking the forecasts for your next hit. That is SO it! Brilliantly written! I always say that seeing the lights ensures only one thing….you will need to see them again. And again. That NEVER diminishes or lessens the more you see them either. We have lived in Lapland for 4 months now and I am just as desperate to see them as ever! Even more so now the summer is coming…. 😀

    • posted by
      Runaway Brit
      Mar 17, 2014 Reply

      I am so envious of what you guys are doing, following the Northern Lights would be a dream-come-true. Maybe in a few years time!

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