Seeing the Lights

Aurora over Shetland, January 2012

I’ve been looking for the Northern Lights for a while.  I remember vaguely peering into the skies in the Cairngorms on Christmas and Easter visits during my childhood, but without any expectation that I’d see anything.  However, over the last few years as my interest in, and enthusiasm for, all things Northern have become stronger it’s increasingly seemed like a gap in my “list-of-things-I’ve-seen”.   When we first visited Shetland in 2007 (actually five years ago this week) I did look optimistically out of the windows of the Sumburgh Hotel and conclude that all I was seeing were the lights at the airport.

Tromso, fishing boats and Cathedral of the Arctic
Fast forward to late 2008. A serious attempt to see the Northern Lights was needed.  I decided that a good time to try and see the Lights was in the days between Christmas and New Year.  To try and make the most of the time available, I found the most northerly airport in Europe that you can fly to direct from London.  It’s actually Tromso on the coast of Norway, deep inside the Arctic Circle, and well known as a good place for seeing the Northern Lights.  The trip started promisingly.  
Amundsen looking into the distance -
presumably for the Northern Lights
On the day I arrived it was bitterly cold, plenty of snow around and the skies were clear but there was no sign of the Northern Lights.  Things degenerated after this.  The cloud cover closed in, the rain started (yes, it did warm up that much), and it quickly turned pretty snowy Tromso into slushy overcast Tromso.  I didn’t see the skies again after the first day – and there certainly wasn’t a sniff of an aurora.  And just when I got to point of thinking the trip couldn’t get much worse, I started feeling feverish.  By the time I got home to Oxford, I was decidedly unwell, and on the first day my doctor was back at work after New Year I was diagnosed with pneumonia, told I’d had a very lucky escape, consigned to bed and signed off work for January.  We’ll file that trip under ‘disappointing’.

Summer 2010.  Not you would think a good time for seeing the Northern Lights, but it is the next step in my quest to see the Lights.   The best place in the UK to see the Northern Lights is Shetland - it’s 60 degrees North, and although the clear skies can’t be guaranteed, the Lights are visible fairly regularly.  The problem is the unpredictability of the aurora – you need a mix of the right activity in the upper atmosphere and the co-operation of the weather closer to sea level.   The solution to the unpredictability is to be on Shetland for lots of time.  In Summer 2010 we bought a house on Shetland so that it is possible to spend time up here waiting for the Northern Lights to appear.

Winter 2011/12.  Amongst other travels to both far North and far South, this winter has given me some time to spend on Shetland.  I was pretty disgruntled at a dramatic show of the aurora in September  2011, when I was still down south in Oxford.  In late October when I was up on Shetland there was one evening when with a bit of imagination I could claim that the sky was brighter and greener that I might otherwise have expected, but it was difficult to claim that I’d “seen the Northern Lights”.  My ‘patience’ was finally rewarded earlier this week when at 10:30 on a Sunday evening, through the kitchen window, I finally saw the Aurora Borealis.  This was the Northern Lights doing exactly what the guide books enthuse about – green curtains waving slowly in the night sky.    Splendid.  Can now tick that off the list.  
Aurora Borealis over Fitful Head on Shetland - seen from the kitchen, January 2012
There are a few of my images from earlier in the week already on Flickr, and if I can add more I certainly will.

And as for what's next - I might get to see the Northern Lights again this winter either on Shetland or further North.

And then, it's probably time to start thinking about the Aurora Australis.

1 comment:

Dr. Chuck said...

Ross, I have seen them in Northern Michigan (Google Cheboygan, MI) on crisp clear nights. Quite beautiful and very moving. Having such energizing weather helps as well. No photo though as it as pre-call phone cameras :)