Tuesday, 26 March 2013

3. See the Aurora Borealis

After only having 80 minutes sleep in the last 34 hours obviously my priority is writing this blog post. This was definitely the most challenging task on my list to complete to date so keep reading to hear about the saga of hunting down the Northern Lights.

An aurora (plural: aurorae or auroras; from the Latin word aurora, "sunrise") is a natural light display in the sky particularly in the high latitude (Arctic and Antarctic) regions. In northern latitudes, the effect is known as the aurora borealis (or the northern lights), named after the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek name for the north wind, Boreas, by Pierre Gassendi in 1621. There are three conditions that you need to have a chance of seeing the Lights which are;
  • 1.       Clear skies
  • 2.       Auroral activity
  • 3.       Patience

However even with all three conditions the Lights have unpredictable behaviour and sightings cannot be guaranteed. A bit of science behind the Lights which have interested the human race since before the time of the ancient Greeks are a phenomenon caused by particles or electrons given off from the sun, an analogy the guide used was like a volcano erupting lava, which are then carried by the solar wind to the planets in the northern part of the solar system. The frequency of the activity is based on the strength of the eruption given off by the sun. The particles take approximately two days to travel to earth where upon they find the gaps in the earth’s magnetic shield at the North and South Poles. The electrons can thus travel through the field and they make friends with the atoms in the earth’s atmosphere upon which the Northern lights are produce. The Lights are made upon of trillions of electrons and atoms having a party together.

Round One – Saturday 23 March 2013
Me and my good friends Laura and Vicky (they’d organised to go to Iceland and I invited myself along) arrived on the Friday and we had a trip booked to see the Lights on Saturday night. After a strenuous day at the Blue Lagoon Spa, supping on fizzy wine in the open air of the natural geothermal pools and an afternoon exploration of down town Reykjavik we headed back to the hotel to prepare for the bus picking us up at 9.30pm to head off into the night on a Northern Lights Hunt. I was quite excited because it coincided with Earth Hour, an international initiative encouraging anyone and everyone to switch off their lights for an hour to encourage people to show concern for the environment and take action on climate change, which I thought was a nice touch to link to seeing the Lights. We had a drink while we were waiting to be picked up only to overhear the man on reception telling a family that the trip had been cancelled for the evening due to ‘unfavourable conditions’.

This is my reaction.

This is how I made myself feel better.

Round Two – Sunday 24 March 2013
After spending the day exploring the Golden Circle we anxiously waited to hear if the trip would be on this evening. . .RESULT, it was!

Happy Kathryn

We headed out to where we had been earlier on in the day, our guide was very enthusiastic about the lights but unfortunately that didn’t play to our advantage. They only appeared briefly for about 5 minutes and they weren’t very strong, just pale green faint lines in the sky. We waited for over an hour to see if they would appear again, it just reinforced their unpredictability that they are a force of nature that cannot be dictated to by the human race.

Round Three – Monday 25 March 2013
Due to the brief appearance of the Lights the night before the company offered to take us out again, we were debating whether we should go because we wouldn’t get in from the Lights until 2am and had to be up for an airport pick up at 4.30am.  .  .but we decided that we would be regretting the decision and we would be full of ‘what ifs’ if we didn’t take up the opportunity.
After 1.5 hours of hunting the Lights there was no appearance of them so we headed back, I was really disappointed as I felt I hadn’t had a proper experience of them but something somewhere answered my prayers and they appeared in front of the bus and put on a show for an awesome shoe for us for an hour. I managed to get a few shots of the Lights however they by no means do them any justice, I found that it wasn’t the colour of the lights than amazed me the most but the movement of the Lights and how they just faded in and out of sight and then appeared elsewhere in the sky, and how they seemed to dance along the sky.

The guide gave us some pointers to get a half decent shot which included not bothering with the flash, switch the camera to manual, if you have a tripod then you’re laughing (something I did not have, so I had to make do with my shaking hands in the sub-zero temperatures so if anyone would like to buy me one then I’ll be grateful), increase the shutter speed and have at least 600 IOS exposure. The guide did say that a lot of the commercial pictures of the Lights have been tampered with to increase the colour palette which leads to a misconception that the lights are extremely vivid in the sky.

The only negative thing I will say  is that I was shocked at the amount of people of my generation that were sat on the bus oblivious to the Lights because they were so engrossed in their phones, probably on Facebook.  I’m so glad I’m not one of those people. My final words would be that if you haven’t seen them then get them on your bucket list because they are an absolutely incredible phenomenon. I’m not suggesting that you need to go as far as Iceland to track them down, just keep your eyes peeled in the winter months if you’re out and about in Northumberland or in the Scottish highlands.