Our top objective for our recent trip to Sweden was to experience the northern lights. By track record, Kiruna and Abisko, in the far north of Sweden, are among the optimal accessible viewing locations in the world. Of course both terrestrial and solar weather have to cooperate. We are happy to report that we did have two nights of aurora sighting, one of which was particularly ample and exciting.
The Aurora Borealis in the north and Aurora Australis in the south come from Earth’s magnetic field’s channeling ions from the solar wind to the poles. The ions hit oxygen, nitrogen and other molecules high in the atmosphere. The energy of the ions excites electrons, which in turn release the energy as photons. Oxygen atoms generate green light; nitrogen provides red light.
The first night was the Photo Tour. At 8 pm, along with about 18 other people, we rode in open-air trailers behind snowmobiles from the lodge out onto the frozen lake, far from the village lights. It was about -21C and super clear. With our layers of clothing and the arctic outerwear from the lodge — and some heating packets in our gloves — we were comfortable in the arctic chill. The guides had set up DSLR cameras on tripods around a small shelter on the ice. We provided our own memory cards for the cameras. The chief photographer, a truly jolly and excited young English fellow, gave us all pointers about how to photograph the aurora once they appear. The camera settings included a 25-second exposure.
For the first hour or so of our time on the ice, there weren’t any aurora. But the sky was dazzlingly full of stars. I had never seen the Milky Way before, and there it was in National Geographic splendor. The stars were lovely and myriad.
Then, gently, a band of aurora emerged from the starry sky. It was subtle. The photographs of aurora are much brighter and clearer of color than what you see with your naked eye. Slowly and gracefully over the next few hours, bands of aurora formed, intensified, and then waned. One of the strongest bands was bright enough to reflect in the icy surface of the lake. We felt that, at last, we had seen the Aurora Borealis; we had succeeded. Perhaps it wasn’t as dramatic as we’d hoped, but it was pretty wonderful nonetheless.
The activity of the next night was labeled Aurora Hunting. Our guides would drive us to places in the area where the sky was as clear as possible on this evening. We joined others in a van. The driver stopped a few kilometers away, along the side of a highway. Despite the distracting bright light of passing traffic (not exactly a traffic jam on the arctic highway, but every few minutes a car or truck passed), we watched the bands of aurora appear. Better than the night before, but I felt a little annoyed that we were fighting the lights of the passing traffic.
After about 30 minutes, our guide directed us back into the van. Our next stop was again out in the middle of a frozen lake. Cameras hadn’t been provided, but the setting was far from distracting human lights. This time, that aurora rose and waned, and rose again, all across the sky. There were multiple bands from horizon to horizon. Then the bands started moving quickly like curtains of light in a celestial breeze. They fluttered and shimmered above our heads, sliding across the sky. All that we — and our fellow spectators — could say over and over was, “Wow!!” The animation of the sheets of aurora was emotional.
Fortunately, our guide had his own DSLR and tripod. He captured some of our night’s aurora, and send us the images. He even had taken a photo of us with the aurora behind us. A little proof that we were really there!