If you live somewhere between Truro and Thurso and walk out your front door on the evening of 24th April, you could be in for one of the great shows on Planet Earth. Something people spend a lifetime and many thousands of pounds trying to see: the Northern Lights.
Usually visible in high latitude areas such as the Arctic Circle, the aurora borealis occasionally flit south and decorate the Scottish skies, but a severe solar storm is bringing high levels of magnetic activity, making the aurora appear further south than usual.
So, if the skies are clear where you live, you might be tempted to try your luck from your front door.
“Here we are,” you’ll whisper, gloves on your hands, as you look north. Only, the display might be quite different from what you expect. Because anyone who has witnessed the Northern Lights will know that while the show is stunning, spectacular, dazzling, it’s not even as the pictures suggest.
The first time I saw the Northern Lights was in Nellim, a small town in the far north of Finnish Lapland a few kilometers from the Russian border, in the winter of 2017. I was recording a podcast about tracking the aurora and had a very optimistic 72 hours to see it. The fact that it was mid-December and the sun would not rise above the horizon during my visit, I thought, should help offset the shortness of my stay.
Upon arrival at my log cabin a staff member dressed me in an oversized snow suit, fitted me for some crampons and then handed me an old Nokia phone as if it were a precious amulet to protect with my life. “Keep it up and on your pillow at night,” he said, as it would sound if the Northern Lights were spotted in the vicinity of the resort.
A day of husky sledding passed, then another day of snowshoeing, but no sunrise. And just as I was starting to worry about filing an incredibly boring podcast episode to my editor, the phone rang. As trained, I donned my thermals and hurried off to a nearby frozen lake where two snowmobiles and a French chap named Anthony were waiting.
We revved up in the dark forest, carving along a set of twin rails deeply entrenched in the pack ice, leaning our weight slightly at each corner. When we reached a clearing, Anthony got to work building a fire. It would affect the clarity of the sky a bit, he said, but without it we wouldn’t be able to stay much longer than 20 minutes. It was almost midnight and the mercury was below minus 20.
I gripped the microphone, catching the sound waves of the cold of my breath and the crackling of the fire, and then the aurora appeared. The performance began as a kind of white arc on the horizon, gently pulsing and retracting, before a giant celestial door opens, sweeping the silver and emerald aurora like iron filings across a pair of magnetic curtains. Whispering into the microphone I realized what I was witnessing was impossible to describe in words, like a football commentator trying to describe the majesty of Lionel Messi leaping in front of a defender, when what he really deserves is silence . A photo might somehow capture the magic, I thought.
By the time Anthony set up a tripod to take my photo, turning the dials with frozen fingers, the clouds had gathered and the display was starting to fade. I asked him if there was any reason, to which he replied “you’ll see”. After hearing the shutter click open, I stood still, posed in front of what was now a wisp of gray sky, and when I heard it close 20 seconds later I joined him to look through the viewfinder .
What I saw was a well-isolated young man in front of a bright green sky, completely different from the reality of the scene. The photographs we see of the northern lights, I realized now, betrayed the reality of the experience.
I was curious to see if I had just experienced a faint aurora and to see if it actually manifests itself as a unique blanket of pink, red and green as the photographs suggest. So a few years later I searched for the Northern Lights once more, this time on a visit to the Ice Hotel in Sweden. Together with a local adventure guide I spent a magical three hours sitting on a frozen lake and forgetting to breathe as the charged particles danced against the pitch black sky. It was even stronger than the one I had seen at Nellim, and my guide Pontus said it was one of the best he had seen that winter. Yet when the photographs surfaced, I felt as if they had falsified the truth, making wonder into a moment that needed no embellishment.
Discussing the Northern Lights delusion idea this morning, a colleague joked that I must have ‘no soul’, to which I reply that I don’t doubt for a second that seeing the aurora in its full glory is one of the deepest experiences that a human being can have. You can see why Phillip Pullman marveled at the northern lights in His Dark Materials – sometimes it really feels like you’re looking into a parallel universe.
However, more than any other natural wonder, the experience is sold under false pretenses and could be somewhat underwhelming, to the unprepared eye. Still, I highly recommend checking the forecast and sticking your head out your front door this week.
If you can catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights, it will be unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.