Van Gogh once said, ‘Teach us to look and see!’
We don’t always see when we look. I am convinced I am not the only one to look but not always see. Eyes are also for seeing things that are easily missed but bring an element of surprise. Looking with purpose awakens previously unseen fascinations, understandings, and insights of our world.
Travel creates great opportunities for seeing and discovering. We are in a strange place, maybe even out of our comfort zone; all is so new and different that spotting all the fascinating things at one glance is a challenge. Photos are very useful when I look at detail later and find some revelation that takes me back. These triggers of detail open new horizons of curiosity. Many facts and interesting insights are missed when whizzing along on a tour bus, or walking past a monument. The detail or significance of the inscriptions
only emerges later, from the photo. Perhaps the inscription requires a translation or further research. In reality, we can be overwhelmed by the overload of stimulations at first glance, and forgiven that we haven’t seen everything.
I hope you enjoy my adventures and discoveries.
Norway: I have seen the Light
He who stares at the aurora for too long will go mad. (Inuit saying)
As a little girl I left behind a land of the northern lights and spent my childhood in Australia’s outback. Instead of the sprites of the lights telling me stories it was the willi-willis, calling crows and spectacular western sunsets that spoke to me. But the urge cannot be denied; I dreamed of experiencing the northern lights and finding out what they had to say to me.
Imagine what fear and awe the appearance of dancing lights filling a clear, cold, dark night sky would have instilled in my early ancestors. Ancient people called them the bridge to the gods, the link between the living and the dead, fire-breathing dragons or glowing pots in the Biblical Book of Ezekiel.
In Finnish mythology, a fox is said to sweep up the snow with his tail and spray it across the sky, giving the aurora its name fire-fox. Sami people believe it is the spume of water ejected by whales that lights the sky. They are inspired to call to the lights in their traditional song form, the yoik.
The appearance of the lights was highly respected, even prompting harmony and resolution of conflicts among the Arctic people. Shamans harnessed its energy for their drums. And there was a warning to children; if you were too bold, the lights could whisk you away with them! Norwegians believed they were old maids dancing, and in Scotland, the lights were also said to be merry dancers. Swedes believed the lights were a reflection of large shoals of herring foretelling a good catch.
In Norse mythology the lights were glints of armour of the Valkyries, the female warriors who determined who lived or died in battle. The aurora was also the glowing arch through which the dead warriors passed to Valhalla.
The indigenous of Greenland, where life was harsh and treacherous, attributed the lights to the spirits of children who had died at birth and were now dancing in the sky. People held them in awe; not to behave solemnly would incur bad fortune. In Iceland, if a woman looked at the lights during childbirth, it was believed her child would be cross-eyed!
In Estonia the lights were said to be a magnificent horse-drawn carriage carrying heavenly guests to a spectacular celestial wedding. This story has similarities to the epic saga, Kalevipoeg. A direct translation of the word for the lights is dancers, still suggesting a merry event. In the early 1940s there was a particularly active display and people talked about the arrival of war, with possible reference to flashing steel blades. Whatever the legends, they grew from the awe and portent of the phenomenon that the early inhabitants witnessed. Their appearances were unpredictable and were among the mysteries of the heavens, along with the sun, moon and stars.
Herman Melville was greatly moved by what he had seen of the American Civil War. In the poem Aurora Borealis, he compares the flash of steel blades of a fighting army to the fantastic display of the aurora in the sky.
What power disbands the Northern Lights
After their steely play?
The lonely watcher feels an awe
Of Nature’s sway
There have been some strange sightings recorded in history. In March, 44 BC, the northern lights surged across the skies above Rome but when Julius Caesar was assassinated on March 15, people began to attach signs of foreboding to the phenomenon’s appearance. In AD 37 it scared the Roman Emperor Tiberius, when above Ostia, Rome’s port on the River Tiber, an intense red glow lit the sky. He called out the army to extinguish the flames, thinking Rome was on fire. Then in AD 70 the lights are said to have hovered over Jerusalem shortly before Emperor Titus destroyed the town and temple.
In AD 451, Attila the Hun was defeated by the Romans and Visigoths while lights were streaming across the sky. It was very unusual for lights to be seen at such low latitudes, suggesting rare celestial alignments at the time of their appearance.
The lights were observed when King Henry II’s men assassinated Thomas Beckett in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. From the 1300s to the middle 1800s there was great climate instability, especially in Europe. The Great Plague, wars and a mini Ice Age came to be associated with the lights being a messenger of tragedy that terrified people. In 1773 James Cook crossed the Antarctic Circle and confirmed the existence of the aurora in the south, being the first person to do so.
Having lived in Tasmania, I have seen the violet colour of southern lights, the Aurora Australis. They seemed less angry in their display than the spectacle which actor Joanna Lumley experienced in Norway. She travelled close to the Arctic, rugged up, and waited several nights to capture them on film.
The aurora affects other creatures too. One Norwegian happened to film white whales playing in the sea off Tromsø, Norway, while the lights were dancing above them. Even surfers brave the cold waters to take to the waves under the lights. How would I feel should I be lucky enough to experience the phenomenon?
Tromsø is above the Arctic Circle at latitude 69°. Travel brochures described it as an ideal place to view the northern aurora. As the plane was approaching Tromsø close to sunset, I thought I saw a finger of white light with a hint of red in the sky. Was it the aurora? I felt a shiver of excitement.
Having arrived at the hotel and finished dinner, my friend and I looked across the town and city lights from our hotel window and were awestruck! A long flowing strip of mainly white light came down from overhead to the horizon. It became more defined in shades of green to violet! Yes, violet was here also. Then another long flowing green curtain with folds arrived and disappeared into the dark sky.
We grabbed coats, hats, and various electronic devices and rushed outside. Aurora had arrived! People were looking up and gasps of delight came from here and there; a passer-by suggested we find a dark street corner for a better view. We followed a man running along with a tripod to higher ground and a shower of lights, mainly green to a hint of red, descended followed by another bright green curtain; wizards were delighting in the wonder they could create. Snap went the camera, then the IPad, snap, snap. The wizards played for about twenty minutes, and then suddenly disappeared as silently as they had arrived. The sky was black again. Despite the city lights, we had seen them with our own eyes.
But the camera had captured a better story; the colours were brighter, more defined. Best of all was the experience. I had witnessed part of the mystery and wonder of the universe, and the mischief of the wizards of the north, all while being showered by some fundamental particles of the sun, neutrinos! The Universe had somehow come closer and made contact.
Next day we booked a bus trip to chase the lights, or as our guide called them, the Green Lady. Sometimes she appears, sometimes she doesn’t. We travelled some 230 km and a total of 8 hours through the night into Sami country, beside water, forest, flat land, all well connected by sealed highways to near the Finnish border near Kilpisjärvi. Small townships lit the water alongside the road; the islands and coast were all inhabited and connected by bridges and roads.
I later learned, to my dismay, that during WWII the Nazis had crossed Norway into Lapland, the home of the Sami reindeer herders, carrying out eugenics experiments before retreating from the oncoming Soviet front. I could not imagine a war being fought here, where nature was surreal, life tough and remote but peaceful.
We met neither Sami nor reindeer in the dark, just rain showers and some white phenomena in the sky, to be captured by camera lenses and long exposure times. The wizards were not revealing themselves to human eyes tonight. In low light, our eyes effectively see in black and white while digital sensors record red, green or blue no matter how faint the light. It is actually impossible to take digital images and present them as a perfect match to the visual appearance. However, the eye does see in greater definition than time exposure camera shots. The glows of yellow and white light behind clouds were later revealed by the camera to be a faint aurora. So, the aurora is indeed elusive! The Green Lady was playing hard to find.
* * * * *
Aurora, the Roman goddess of dawn, gave the phenomenon its name. Borealis comes from the Greek word for north wind. The aurora can appear in many forms, depending on how the charged particles are distributed as they enter our atmosphere. They can look like waves, curtains, showers or flashes of colour. The actual size of the aurora is huge. It forms a ring around the Earth’s polar regions and can be seen simultaneously in many countries on that latitude. To see auroras you need to go to polar places: Iceland, Scandinavia, Alaska, Tasmania, South America or South Africa, and wait for the right atmospheric conditions. As in ancient times they cannot be summoned at will. But we know more about the science behind them, now we may marvel rather than fear their existence.
The auroras become visible in both hemispheres near the poles in cold weather. They are described as curtains of coloured light that move across the sky with a will of their own, lasting some few minutes to twenty, maybe returning in two hours, maybe not. It’s impossible to make a reservation for a specific time for a viewing.
So what are they? They are charged gases formed when solar winds caused by giant flares from our sun reach Earth, are bent by the Earth’s magnetic field, and collide with the gases in the ionosphere causing them to form highly energised particles which then lose their energy by emitting it in the form of light. A Norwegian, Kristian Birkeland, first proposed this explanation in 1908 and although much more is now known with the aid of satellites and studies of space weather, it is still an accurate description.
The solar wind blows continuously, and when particles or atoms enter the earth’s magnetic field near the poles, they stimulate or energise the gases in the atmosphere. At certain wavelengths, these atoms emit energy to produce the coloured light that we can see. Nitrogen gives rise to blue-greens; red is from oxygen. Greens can flick to reds and violets. The stronger green colour is usually at higher altitudes, 120-180 km above the Earth, while violet is lower down on the horizon. Sometimes the green, red and violet merge to form white. The more energetic the particles, the more they can penetrate the atmosphere and because most of our atmosphere is nitrogen, the predominant colour is green. Lilac tones, bordering on the horizon to violet, are seen mostly in high latitude areas in the southern hemisphere, the Aurora Australis.
Auroras occur all the time but become visible to our eyes when there is a large amount of energy exchange going on in the visible spectrum. They are best seen against a dark sky. The process occurs at about 80-100km up in the ionosphere. The ionosphere itself is full of all kinds of charged particles which, when they move, create an electric force and form a magnetic field which encircles each of Earth’s magnetic poles. This field reacts with the solar particles. Solar flare bursts seem to occur at 11-year intervals; the most recent was in 2011. Nevertheless, a significant flare burst occurred in 2014 followed by a great show as reported in northern latitudes.
The sun’s magnetic core is continually active, producing black sunspots that occasionally burst in a flare. In April 2016, NASA recorded a moderate flare of extreme ultraviolet light and in July a trio of moderate flares was reported. As it was summer in northern latitudes with long bright nights, the interactions were only observable by instruments. I wonder if the night sky in Tasmania turned violet in April and July that year?
Although auroras produce a sense of wonder on Earth, large fluxes can also interrupt communications. It takes about 2-4 days for the solar wind to arrive, travelling at about 450 km per second. Earth’s magnetic field protects life from damaging radiation. Thus the solar wind does not penetrate the Earth’s atmosphere immediately but ‘fights’ the magnetic field. About 1400 gigawatts of energy can be released – an amount equal to twice the electrical energy consumption of the USA in one year. Such high fluxes interfere temporarily with aircraft and satellite communications. They have caused blackouts and telecommunication breakdowns. Another result of the interference produced by the shower of particles can be detected in the radio frequency range as a crackle using a radio receiver; our ears are not sensitive enough to hear this.
In 1859, billions of tons of burning gas were flung out into space from a large group of sunspots. Just 17 hours later, huge quantities of charged particles entered the earth’s magnetic field at a speed of 8.3 million km per hour. The collision created the greatest display of the aurora ever of our era, not only in northern latitudes but almost to the Equator, being visible in Hawaii.
Auroras occur on other planets that have a magnetic field and some atmosphere. On Jupiter they appear blue, due to the atmosphere being mainly helium and hydrogen gases; we know that charged particles of these gases give off blue light. NASA’s spacecraft, Juno, on its approach to Jupiter, recorded spectacular swirls of infrared auroras at the South Pole of Jupiter. The South Pole, the far side, had never been seen from Earth.
Scientists are intrigued by this type of aurora, which is not in the visible part of the spectrum, but is referred to as heat energy. Mars has an atmosphere of almost 95% carbon dioxide and a disorganised magnetic field. Its aurora would appear as a glow and could only be seen with very sensitive instrumentation.
As early photography was only black and white, a Danish painter, Harald Moltke, was included in three scientific expeditions to Finland, Greenland and Iceland of the Danish Meteorological Institute in 1899-1901. His task was to paint the colours and forms of the auroras and his paintings, displayed at the Akureyri Museum, Iceland, are said to convey a faithful record of the aurora as seen by the human eye.
At Tromsø we had sensed many dimensions of the night sky in dancing colours and shapes. Were we looking at the finger of God? His hand moving the drapes aside to open a chink into the mystery of His Universe?
What our ancestors truly experienced and felt at such times must remain a mystery. As for me, the aurora had made a deep and permanent impression. I had seen the lights!
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