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Field Journal

Under the Aurora

Under the Aurora
Melanie Windridge is a plasma physicist, speaker, writer who is fascinated by the aurora. In her new book Aurora: In Search of the Northern Lights, she went on an Arctic adventure to offer new insights into this evocative phenomenon

I watched the total solar eclipse in Svalbard – one of only a few thousand people. But that wasn’t the main reason I was there. Wrapped up in down clothing and standing in a wide, frozen valley, I stared at a black disc in the sky and its wispy silver halo. I smiled in awe and disbelief that I had been able to witness such a rare sight in such an incredible place. Timing, weather, chance.

I was at the end of a journey of discovery. Writing a book on the northern lights, I had been travelling to various Arctic locations learning about the aurora. I am a physicist, but I wasn’t just writing about the science of the aurora, I was writing its story – the people, the places, the landscapes and the histories. I wanted to know it. I wanted to stand captivated under a wide sky, watching the heavens move in a graceful, barely choreographed dance. I wanted to feel it.

My first view of the northern lights was in Kiruna, Sweden, on an Arctic Science course. At the top of a ski slope, turning my back to the town and the brightly-lit mine to which the town owed its existence, I looked north, where a very quiet aurora was beginning to appear as a green, arcing haze. Over time it grew in colour and clarity, the arch becoming more defined, then breaking and twisting.

The aurora is our connection with the Sun. It is how our little planet protects itself from the streaming charged particles of the ‘solar wind’, absorbing the energy in its magnetic field and dissipating it as an incredibly beautiful light show.
Under the Aurora Under the Aurora
Left: Ivar Marthinusen // Right: Svante Strand

My journey took me to northern Norway to learn about folklore, history, early auroral science and the beginning of our movement from myth to the possibility of knowledge. I trekked the Laugavegur route in Iceland. I walked through the active, volcanic region from Landmannalaugar to Thórsmörk, past sulphurous steaming vents and through fields of black basalt and obsidian. This region highlights the dynamic geological structure of the Earth. The movement of the fluid interior of our planet furnishes us with a protective magnetic shield, without which life as we know it wouldn’t exist.

Travelling in Canada, visiting small observatories shut down for summer, I learned how images of the aurora can tell us about what is going on beyond our globe, about the intricate interplay of the solar wind and the Earth’s magnetic field. This interplay accelerates electrons down magnetic field lines towards the poles. These fast particles hit oxygen and nitrogen atoms in our upper atmosphere and cause them to give off the coloured light.

Finally, I flew to Svalbard in February, where I skied out from Longyearbyen towards the frozen East Coast – just me and a guide – so I could see the aurora in a true wilderness environment, as the old polar explorers would have done.

The trip was more intense – more brutal – than I could have imagined. I realised then that out there everything becomes about survival and nothing else matters.

The first two days were simply white. The light was flat and the sky a barely-there grey. No sun, no colour, no contrast. Low mountains rose up on either side – white with high, grey rock bands. The land was windswept ice. We were accompanied always by the loud scraping sound of skis over uneven frost. It was too loud to talk. We progressed in our own individual worlds.

Day three was in colour. It was clear and the sky showed a tinge of blue. Skiing down Reindalen, the valley seemed lavender-tinted. It was a vast and beautiful expanse edged by flattened mountains that looked like a giant line of piled white sugar subsiding into the valley. When the sun rose, although we didn’t see it, it licked the top of the mountains and painted them a pinkish hue. The whole sky near the horizon turned an orangey-mauve, like watercolour blood orange. As we skied, temperatures dropped to almost -40°C.

I did see the northern lights – a faint greenish white, stretched out east–west across the whole sky, reaching up in places like towers to the heavens. Arctic winter camping, however, is not the best way to see this magnificent event. Mostly it was a struggle to get out the tent.

A month later, looking up at the corona and seeing the solar wind streaming away from the Sun, I was able to reflect on how intimately connected we are with the sun on so many levels. I was privileged to write this story. The following day, I boarded a plane back to my world, carrying a big part of the North with me.

Melanie Windridge is a physicist, speaker, writer… with a taste for adventure. Her book Aurora: In Search of the Northern Lights is out now.