I was attending the Scottish Astronomy Weekend at Dundee in September 1997. At the Mills Observatory, we were watching the sky and engrossed in discussions about old telescopes, when Dr. David Gavine, a keen auroral observer from Edinburgh, suddenly called out. The light he pointed to was so faint that he had to ask, "Can you see it?" Yes. It was the Aurora Borealis! The yellowish white glimmer had us transfixed. We waited expectantly for a brighter display of lights, but the aurora remained still for thirty long minutes. Enthralled by its beauty, I have been waiting to go on one more trip to the polar regions to seek them out.
Named after the Roman Goddess of Dawn (Aurora) and the North Winds (Boreas in Latin), the Northern Lights love playing hide and seek. It really tests your patience and drains you out, when you have to stay awake (usually past midnight) and wait in the wilderness (best for visibility), hoping for the magic show to commence in the heavens.
In snowbound regions folklore surrounding these dancing lights portray them as the souls of the dead, spirits of dead enemies, spirits of the dead that play ball with walrus' heads and even spirits of walruses playing ball with human skulls! Eskimos and Inuits from these regions say that the auroral lights make crackling sounds, and they whistle to call the aurora closer.
In reality, it takes a series of events for this phenomenon to occur. During large solar explosions and flares, the sun throws out huge quantities of particles into space. When the ones headed towards the earth meet its magnetic shield, they interact with the upper layers of the atmosphere and release an energy that forms the aurora in an oval band around both the North and South poles. Generally extending from 80 km to as high as 640 km above the earth's surface, these lights can take several forms including rippling curtains, corona, pulsating globs, travelling pulses and steady glows. The colours that you see are a result of the particles interacting with the different gases like Nitrogen and Oxygen and vary as per the altitude--blue, violet and red occur below 100 km, bright green is strongest between 100-240 km and ruby red appears above 240 km.
The solar maximum (a period of high solar activity) this winter, is giving people living near the poles an opportunity to enjoy a great display of wonderful effects in the northern skies. Now is the best time to take a chance and take a trip to see them.
Where to go
To enjoy and experience the Northern Lights in all their splendour, week-long cruises and/or land trips are available in Norway, Finland, Sweden, Iceland, Alaska, Canada, Scotland, Greenland and Russia.
What to expect
Barely three hours of daylight and twilight thereafter.
As you cruise past the Arctic circle, organisers usually arrange a fun ceremony called Arctic Circle Baptism; everyone aboard forms a ring and is then baptised with a sprinkling of sea water. Land trips are just as exciting. You can stay in wilderness camps, log cabins or even with the Saami tribe that resides in the Arctic regions of several countries.
During most 'Northern Lights trips' you can take a dog sledge ride through the magnificent winter landscape of snow-clad forests and frozen lakes, try ice-hole fishing, whale watching, snow treks, snow biking, visits to reindeer parks and ice bars or snow hotels. At Rovaniemi near the Arctic Circle in Finland, you can visit Santa Claus Village and its post office.
Due to fluctuating weather conditions and solar activity, sighting of the dancing lights can't be assured, but when they occur, you can see them from your cruise or a viewing point. If it's not visible from your location, join Northern Light hunting buses(equipped with GPS tracking systems). They'll take you to the exact spot.
How much to spend
The cost of cruises organised by Indian tour agents, range from Rs 1,50,000 to Rs 2,50,000. It includes the cruise cost, pre and post cruise extensions and some optional activities. The cost of land trips ranges from Rs 1,20,000 to Rs 1,30,000.
Tips for photography
#1 Use an SLR camera as it is difficult to get good photographs of the aurora with point-and-shoot cameras or ones without a manual setting option. The focus needs to be adjusted manually because on auto-focus mode the camera may keep hunting between the far and near focus.
#2 Carry a tripod and use a remote shutter release or timer to prevent the camera from shaking too much.
#3 Use fast ISO settings and a wide lens for capturing images of the aurora in the shortest exposure to avoid star trails or trees swaying in the wind.