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The Northern Lights: Expectation and Reality

Read time – 3 minutes

In February 2019 I travelled to a small and rugged archipelago off Norway's northwest coast - the Vesteralen Islands. One-hundred miles inside the Arctic Circle they are situated conveniently beneath the Aurora Oval and they play host to one of nature's most spectacular shows.

I always had an idea in my mind of what I thought the Northern Lights would look like: I envisaged vibrant green ribbons moving delicately through the sky; I envisaged a continuous, slow-burning hue of light; I envisaged everything that professional photographs had led me to expect. While in Norway I was lucky enough to experience them first-hand, and what I saw couldn't have been any further from those expectations and this is how…

They began as a mellow glow in the distance - not green but a pale white. For quite a while they remained that way, slowly growing stronger both in volume and colour and laying stagnant like a blanket over the mountains, until a sudden elastic snap sent a wave of shimmering particles above my head and the sky convulsed with ridges of purple and green. As quickly as they had come, they were gone; if truth be told I was a little underwhelmed – was that it!? After a while I consigned myself to the fact that I had been lucky to see what I had seen and began to walk home. When I looked up again, however, I was totally unprepared for what I saw with my own eyes. Seemingly out of nowhere an explosion had taken place above me as granules of solar energy moved this way and that like a flock of birds that each fly autonomously and yet move in perfect unison. At one moment the sky to my left would erupt with pale yellows and greens and almost immediately after a separate section would shine with bright pinks and whites. I could not tell where the next burst of light would take form and my fingers and toes were no longer cold as a course of adrenaline pumped through my body, such was the impact that the lights had on me! They came and went repeatedly for several hours, and they were unlike anything I had envisaged they would be. They move rapidly and unpredictably in a wide spectrum of colours – a far cry from the slow-moving beast that I had expected to see, and what I had originally foreseen as a pleasant addition to my time in Norway had turned out to be one of the most exciting spectacles of the entire trip.

The Northern Lights are nothing like the displays captured by artificial long exposures, and this is precisely why I encourage everyone to go and see them in person, because they are so much more! For me, they were a spine-tingling experience that kept me captivated for hours whilst standing in sub-zero temperatures, and I don’t think anyone will ever truly understand nor appreciate the Northern Lights until they have experienced them first-hand.

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