Friday, 10 February 2017

Chasing the Aurora with Lights Over Lapland

We've made pilgrimages for stargazing before, certain that the heavens would open up and show us some magic. Yet we've been foiled each time - whether by moon, or cloud, or fog. Still, we persist, ever-hopeful, and when D announced that we'd be heading to Sweden so we could check off his and M's Bucket List dream (mine too!) of seeing the Northern Lights in person, we prepared ourselves for watching, waiting, and lots of prayer in the freezing cold. They say that staying 3 nights in Abisko gives you an 80% chance of seeing the Aurora, so being kiasu Singaporeans, we stayed 4 to up our odds. Off the Map Travel made most of the arrangements for us, designing our itinerary to maximize our chances.

Our main hope of seeing the lights lay in our visit to the the Aurora Sky Station in Abisko, a site which looks perfect on paper. According to Lonely Planet, it's the #1 spot in the world to see the Northern Lights. Perched 900 m above sea level at the top of Mt Nuolja, the Sky Station is situated far away from much of the light pollution of the town. Sitting in the middle of a ring of mountains, Abisko also possesses what the locals fondly call a "Blue Hole", a quirk of the local micro-climate. This means it receives far less precipitation than any other location within the vaunted Aurora Oval this far north of the Arctic Circle, or anywhere else in Europe for that matter. In other words: optimum conditions for Aurora sightings. 

Nature had other ideas. Peculiarly warm weather brought with it overcast skies, and all we got for our efforts the first night was a pale and sickly looking glow on the edge of a cloud for a couple of minutes, then nothing for the entire three hours I stayed up there. M & BB were too fatigued after our first run, but not to be deterred, D & I went back up the next night once we got word they could squeeze us in. After all, no quest is truly satisfying unless there are a few obstacles thrown in.

The drill at the Sky Station is simple: stay warm indoors, and listen to the talks on how Auroras are formed. If and when something interesting pops up on the live camera feed, charge outside with everyone else. Battling the elements, and in my case a nasty fever, we belly crawled up the side of the icy mountain in the dark the moment the alarm sounded. Ah, the crazy things we'll do once we set our minds to it. 

And then there they were, thin strips of green ribbon undulating in the night sky. Near the horizon, a hint of shimmering pink mist, flickering in and out of existence by the light of a full moon. Nothing like we'd seen in the pictures, but startling and magnificent nonetheless. In real time, we were seeing supercharged particles from the sun interact with the Earth's upper atmosphere, the energy released in the form of colourful lights - here one moment, gone the next.

The Sky Station had given us the briefest taste of cosmic lights, but it wasn't till our final evening that we were able to properly satisfy our desire to take in the Aurora, with the Lights Over Lapland nightly photography tourThere's a good reason why Lights Over Lapland run the top ranked activity for visitors to Abisko - while they can't control the Aurora, every other detail has been thoughtfully planned out. From equipment that will rise to the occasion when called for (Everyone in the group is armed with a preset DSLR and matching tripod, with a camera backpack for transporting things around. They even provide boot grips so you'll have an easier walk across the snow and ice), to professional guides who'll help you at every step along the way (We were mentored by Sarah and Andy Skinner, two amazing wildlife and nature photographers who taught us more than a few camera tricks), everything was ready for us. All we had to do was point at the Aurora as they appeared, and shoot. Together, our small group camped out for a few hours in Abisko National Park, just a stone's throw away from the lodge that the company is based out of. And finally, we got very lucky indeed. 

In Finland they have old stories about the Aurora being the sparks thrown off by the Fire Fox that runs across the sky, while here in Sweden, some Sámi tales say they're a manifestation of ancestral spirits, and something that needs to be treated with respect. The Northern Lights have also been thought to be the Bifrost, a bridge between worlds, or a portend of good things to come. There's something distinctly otherworldly about these mesmerizing arcs of light, dancing across the sky. The reality of how the Northern Lights are formed is no less spectacular, involving highly charged particles from the Sun hurtling towards us through space, and interacting with the Earth's magnetic field. The lights occur at an altitude of at least 80 km above the surface of the Earth, when solar particles impact with the atmosphere. Depending on the gas they hit, different coloured light is emitted - deep reds and blues for Nitrogen, or bright greens and reds for Oxygen. 

We were one of thousands who were compelled to go see the Aurora after reading the articles proclaiming the end of Solar Maximum and the beginning of Solar Minimum, supposedly marking the end of such spectacular lights for years to come. The actual science is not quite so doom and gloom, as Sarah explained to us over hot lingonberry tea. Yes, sunspot energy is moving towards a low, but such coronal mass ejections (the bursts of plasma streaming out of the sun) aren't the only things that result in Auroras. Magnetic activity creates coronal holes in the surface of the Sun, blasting solar winds in our direction that also create spectacular Northern Lights, and none of this goes away at any point in the solar cycle. It remains a matter of luck, timing and location, but you'll still be able to see the Northern Lights for years to come.

If you're a homebody, let me tell you now that the Northern Lights actually do look much better in pictures than in real life, mostly because our eyes can't distinguish colours at night as well as a good camera can. But when you're able to stand amazed under an intense show as we were, there's nothing quite like it. 

Some nights, the groups that go out are only able to glimpse little spots of lights, and have to stand focused and ready to be able to capture them. In contrast, it felt like we were at an Aurora buffet. At first, it was hard to decide which angle to start with - we were so afraid the lights were all going to dissipate. This led to a lot of frantic shots of various corners of the sky, swivelling the tripod this way and that. Eventually it dawned on us that we'd been gifted with the opportunity to take our time. For that night at least, the lights weren't about to disappear on us. As the Aurora came and went like emerald and silver curlicues stretching across a scrolling page, we were able to properly compose our shots, experiment with shutter speeds, pose for family photos, and even sprawl out on the ground to watch the show. I wouldn't call Aurora hunting a very relaxing activity, but on this night, it certainly felt quite an indulgent one. 

Eventually, when the adrenaline from seeing so much light finally wore off, I made myself comfortable in the tent where Sarah and Andy had built a nice big fire. As I lay on some reindeer pelts, there were the world's largest marshmallows to toast and stuff my face with, more cups of deliciously tart tea, and the satisfaction of an evening well-spent. 

One more thing crossed off the Bucket List - now onto the next adventure. 

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