Not all Auroras are Equal

We are fortunate to live in northern Minnesota where we can see the Northern Lights when the conditions are right. Over the years, I’ve seen my share of Auroras. The very best was up at our cabin. Late at night, sitting around the campfire, someone looked up and noticed the green glow. We all trooped down to the dock where we had a view of the whole sky. There were rays shooting up from all directions, reaching the apex and waving.  Lying on our backs to watch the performance was awesome.

More commonly, the lights have been a green glow in the North. Sometimes they create spikes that stretch up into the sky.  Others form curtains that hang above the landscape like the display I saw in the Boundary Waters with my son Carl. Each is mesmerizing and special.

With that as my frame of reference, I was unprepared for the Northern Lights in Norway. Sure, I’d seen photographs and tourism posters, but those are unabashedly sensationalized.  I knew the chance of seeing the lights was better there. Pure geography means even weaker displays are visible.  I just hadn’t realized how different they would be.

Our first night we got really lucky.  In the vernacular of the serious Aurora Hunters, there was a “G2 storm” – which means an extraordinary amount of solar magnetic activity.  That translates to a high likelihood of seeing the Northern Lights.

Not only did the lights blanket the sky, but they were exceptionally brilliant and intense.  We didn’t have to look for a green glow.  The whole sky was glowing.  Against that backdrop bright rays shot across the sky, arcing over our heads and extending from horizon to horizon.  It was as if we were witnessing huge electric currents, pulsating and giving off waves of color.  Everything was perfectly aligned to bring us this fine display – location, clear skies, no moon and solar power in the atmosphere.  And boy, was that obvious.Mountain Pass AuroraThe following night, we knew that the solar activity was weaker, so we adjusted our expectations accordingly.  I think we were still harboring a Minnesota frame of reference, because once again we were amazed at what we saw.  This time the lights may not have been as intense, but the sharp streaks were replaced by patterns and movement and the performance lasted much longer.  For about an hour and a half we watched as the lights danced overhead.  They were constantly in motion, creating shapes then morphing into something else.  First active on one side of the ski, then picking up momentum on the other.  My favorite was the circular curtain of lights, waving its folds and draping its colors as it curved.  It was hard to know which way to look, because to view in one direction meant missing something behind me.Mountain Fjord Aurora 1Mountain Fjord Aurora 2Mountain Fjord Aurora 3I have Rich to thank for the photographs of these displays, as that is his specialty.  Often times I feel that the camera overstates what I was able to see with my own eyes.  But on this occasion, I think that the opposite is true.  His photos are quite true to what we saw, yet cannot do justice to the whole experience.  Not even his wide angle lens could capture the full image of what was happening up in the sky.  You had to be there to see it.  I can now fully appreciate the vast beauty of just what the Northern Lights can do.  And it is abundantly clear that not all Auroras are equal.  I’m convinced that we saw some of the best.

An Aurora Hunter’s Wife

I’ve gotten used to living with an Aurora Hunter.  The constant monitoring of atmospheric indicators.  The blips and beeps that go off night and day from apps informing him of favorable conditions.  Flinging around mysterious terms like Kp index, solar wind speed, Bz and coronal mass ejection.  And the nocturnal trips out into the dark and cold.  All in search of Northern Lights.

It’s a lot like going to estate sales.  The ads sound really good, and you’re sure you’re going to find some real treasures.  But the reality is many of the sales are duds with nothing of interest.  Then just when you think you can’t stand to walk through one more crowded house crammed with odd stuff, you hit a gem – a true winner.  And all those fruitless trips were worth it just for this one.

I’ve gotten good at sleeping through most of this.  So good that two nights ago I had no idea that Rich’s alerts went off around 2:00am, pulling him out of bed and out into the night.  It wasn’t until shortly after my alarm went off at 6:00am that I heard him – returning.  And this time he was victorious.  “Oh Wow” were the first words out of his mouth.  The rays were dancing around the sky and he could even see the reds with his own eyes.  Pretty impressive, and I admit to feeling a twinge of envy.  To be fair, he did text me with a description and lot of exclamation points, but I slept through that bleep as well.

With promises of another night of auroral activity, I suited up in all my long underwear and winter gear to go along this time.  The word was to get out early, and it was good advice.  After driving an hour to a remote lake with a good view away from any city glow, we could already see faint green spires shooting into the sky even in the fading light of the sunset.  The darker the sky got, the more aurora lights we could see.  By 9:30 the lights were emanating from a full semi-circle around us, spreading well up into the sky.  The best part was when the most brilliant lights started on the right and unfurled above the horizon.  It was easy to see them advance across the sky above the lake, twisting and growing as they illuminated the night.

Rich Northern-Lights-1

Photo by Rich Hoeg

Naturally Rich was out with his camera, his passion being to capture the magic.  Thinking I had plenty of time for that later, I merely watched.  It was liberating to just take in the lights, to be able to look all around the sky at the various components of the light show and the interplay between the columns of light.  Later when it became clear that it was the peak of the display, I wished I had been prepared to photograph it.  But then again, I would have missed much of the drama.

Northern LightsBy the time I did set up my tripod and camera, the lights were dimming.  No longer did we have the deep green hues and movement.  But it was still beautiful.  Shortly after I took a few test shots, the color began to fade.  Surprisingly, the resulting photos had some merit.  It helps that the camera captures more color than I can see.

We lingered for about another hour, but the lights dwindled to a dull white glow.  Although the indicators were still quite positive, the reality was that the show had ended.  It never did reach the pinnacle that it did the previous night, but that’s the nature of the Northern Lights.  Nothing is ever guaranteed.

I know enough now that I will probably miss some of those spectacular displays. I just don’t have the persistence to act on every alert.  But Rich does, and if I get lucky in choosing when to accompany him I will likely see some pretty good Northern Lights, like last night.  Such is the life of an Aurora Hunter’s wife.