Nature & Environment May 17, 2017

Who’s Afraid of the Northern Lights

Guest post by Michael N. McCoy

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Drawing the curtains, I looked to the sky. What was I supposed to be looking for? Descriptions of aurora vary in their ubiquity. A streaking wisp of clouds some nights. A lingering, hazy glow on others. How well even can the naked eye see?

Reading about the northern lights in Iceland, or the aurora anywhere, most suggested not visiting somewhere solely for this cosmic spectacle. Accommodating weather is hard to predict and the requisite solar activity even harder.

Sound advice that I’d carry as a shield when telling friends I was traveling to Iceland, partly hoping to see the northern lights. This place swells with tourists in summertime when there’s no chance of seeing the aurora and the days are interminably long so close to the Arctic Circle. Black sand beaches, volcanoes, and an endless bounty of waterfalls are wonderful, as are glaciers and lagoons with blocks of ice that drift into the sea. But I knew a return flight from Keflavik without having seen this display would leave a hollow feeling, however faint.

Five overcast nights into a drive around the Ring Road, conditions had not been promising. Neither was the weather nor the solar activity. Heading towards, the forecast was finally looking clear, but the aurora was at its lowest ebb of the trip, a “1” on the Vedur scale. Cushioning this blow was the drive down fjord at dusk, Akureyri’s lights gleaming across the water. Having spent days traversing Route 1’s sparsely populated landscape, Akureyri seemed a metropolis despite its modest population. With dinner and drinks to follow, our mood improved further.

Back at the hotel, without thinking, I checked Vedur’s latest aurora update. It took me a moment to process its jump to “4” on the scale, meaning the aurora was active. A jolt went through my body, an audible gasp apprising my friend of this surprising development. Which brings us back to the beginning, standing at the window, looking expectantly to the sky. A short time later, I was still there and still unsure of what I was looking for. Then, I wasn’t. There IT was. Or was it “they”? I’m not aware of the rules of English grammar as they pertain to pronouns for aurora activity. But I knew I was looking at them now; a thin, greenish cloud slithering slowly, ominously even, like a snake, above Akureyri.

I yelled out to my friend through the window. He rejoiced himself after witnessing the reason for mine. Instinctively, we threw on our jackets, geared up with cameras and tripods, and headed towards the car. We spent the next thirty minutes trying to escape the once welcoming lights of Akureyri.

We eventually found a pullover on the other side of the mountains east of town. Here, the next couple of hours were spent watching the night sky dance with shape and color that I still couldn’t previously fathom. I never watched them with anything less than euphoric glee, but occasionally it was unsettling. The sky isn’t supposed to look like this, I thought, which I know is stating the obvious because that’s why we seek this phenomenon in the first place, but until you see it for yourself, you’re not prepared for how haunting it can be. Beautiful, yes, but as a tiny, not even a tip of the iceberg demonstration of the cosmos’ power, terrifying as well.