Hunting the Northern Lights
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it’s an opportunity to see the spectacular beauty of pure physics.
We are deckside off the North Cape watching a silver-gray arc spanning the night sky. Almost imperceptibly over 30 minutes, rays shoot up to form pillars, ribbons and, eventually, a trio of funnels reaching fat, ghostly, pale-green fingers toward the heavens. These are the northern lights, a popular bucket-list item. “I’ve met stargazers on pilgrimage from all over the world,” says astronomer Dr. John Mason, who has been chasing the aurora borealis for 25 years.
Mystical though it looks, the aurora is the result of pure physics: energy particles dispatched by solar winds colliding with oxygen and nitrogen atoms as they hit Earth’s atmosphere. It’s a year-round phenomenon that’s visible only when certain conditions exist: The sky must be clear and dark enough to catch the show (end of August to early April), and people need to get close enough to the auroral rings circling Earth’s poles to see them. “The vivid green is true, and so are the rarer reds and violets, but the naked eye can’t register these colors,” explains Mason. A person’s night vision has to adapt before even subtle pastels can be detected, and patience is required; it may take hours for the dramatic shape-shifting to take place, if at all.
The northern lights can be seen in Alaska; Yellowknife, Canada; and the U.S. borderlands; but those locations can be pricier to reach than the Scandinavian flight destinations. Like Tromsø, Norway, nicknamed “the capital of the Arctic,” where we pick up Hurtigruten, the Norwegian Coastal Steamer that Mason takes annually for a six-night sail beneath the auroral ring. The 12-day return voyage costs $2,200, but the Arctic portion alone, including flights from London, can be had for just over $1,400.
More ships traveling into coastal regions as the ice cap retreats worries Ben Ayliffe, the environmental scientist heading up Greenpeace’s Arctic campaign: “The impact of the carbon and diesel they burn is a real concern,” Ayliffe says. But he also notes that it’s a balancing act; light-chasers are bringing revenue to Greenland and developing a tourist industry that is potentially less harmful to its environment than oil drilling.
Aurora-spotting is a gamble. There’s no guarantee travelers will even get a glimpse: You can spend $2,000 and see nothing, or light pollution can obscure the show. Many travelers don’t go far enough north and are disappointed, like Gay Phillips of Brighton, England, who spent thousands on a trip to Reykjavík, Iceland, after hearing that this season was the best in a decade for a sighting. “You need to be in northeast Iceland, far from the capital, to have a chance,” Mason says. Other good spots: Abisko in Swedish Lapland and Fort McMurray, in Alberta, Canada, both of which have dedicated “sky stations”; also, Greenland, northern Finland and remote camps beneath the auroral oval off Alaska’s Dalton Highway.
While beautiful to behold, the northern lights can also bring awareness to the tourists drawn to its splendor. Ayliffe believes that more people experiencing the wonder of the far north “should make them more passionate about helping keep the top of the world a sanctuary for everyone.” Just as long as they tread lightly.