It’s a glum wet day in Helsinki and I intend to brighten up your virtual inner sky by sharing some photos of the Northern Lights, or aurora borealis. The techies among you will know that this wondrously surreal phenomenon – for my money the most profoundly moving, beautiful and enchanting on or around the planet – is the result of collisions between charged particles released from the sun with gaseous particles in the Earth’s atmosphere. I don’t really care what causes them, but I thought I’d better let you know that. While you’re watching them, you won’t care either, you’ll just gawp in wonder. You’ll feel like laughing. It’s too ridiculously amazing to be true.
Minus 25, but worth crawling out of my lakeside glass igloo in Finnish Lapland just after midnight. Wrap up warm if you intend to indulge in this kind of madness: jumping around just isn’t enough.
I first heard about the Northern Lights in a song by the 1970s band Renaissance. “The Northern Lights are in my mind, they guide me back to you,” their beautiful woman singer sang, to an irresistibly catchy tune. I had no idea what she was on about then. I thought she might be singing about the nighttime attractions of Blackpool or some other northern English city. Now I know what they were on about, I wonder why there aren’t more songs about it.
This was one result of a spectacular night that I spent entirely alone at the Joulukka Christmas theme lodge near the Arctic Circle in Lapland. It was September, so the lake wasn’t yet frozen. It is often assumed that the aurora can only be seen on cold winter nights, but autumn and spring are also good times.
The first time I actually witnessed this awesome – and I really do mean awesome – natural phenomenon was on a frozen lake in Finnish Lapland in about 1984, when I jumped around in the company of two other more-than-slightly intoxicated Englishmen, like children on a sugar rush at a magic show, shouting and pointing at the sky in mesmerized disbelief, wondering if our drinks had been spiked.
Appearances of the Northern Lights in Helsinki in southern Finland, which is on the same latitude as Lerwick in Shetland, are not quite as unusual as people think, but sightings this spectacular, with this corona effect, are rare. I shot this from the top of my road in March 2015. I’m not sure I’ll ever see it this powerful again in Helsinki.
You can’t just see the Northern Lights and tick them off your list. Once you’ve seen them, you have to see them again. And again. It becomes an obsession. I’ve got three Apps on my phone and another one on my iPad telling me when a ‘performance’ might be possible. I’ve flown to Lapland and travelled to remote locations to freeze under starlit skies with the sole intention of watching the aurora. I wander around bumping into trees by the river near my Helsinki home, staring at the sky, in the often vain hope of photographing, or just catching a glimpse of the curtains of colour being shifted around the sky by some giant unseen hand.
Not my best aurora shot but one that illustrates that you can see the Northern Lights as far south as Helsinki – and even in August. This is on the edge of Helsinki’s Central Park and the artificial light is from Helsinki Airport.
So that’s another confession off my chest. If you’d like to share my obsession, assuming you don’t already, you need to be a long way north, the sky needs to be clear, and it helps to get away from urban light pollution. And although it’s great fun to photograph them, try to remember not to get too obsessed with photographing them. Submit to the spectacle. Be transfixed!
In the Norwegian mountains. My host was a fish factory manager who offered to take me for a drive into the mountains in case we could see the aurora. We waited in this spot for two hours until just after midnight to get this show. Some people in ‘aurora countries’ are inexplicably blase about the phenomenon. This fellow shared my excitement, even though he’d probably seen it a thousand times.
The Alaska Geophysical Institute has quite a good site here, with regional maps giving predictive information: http://www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast But unlike some of the tourists who flock to northern Finland with a sighting at the top of their list, don’t assume that you can flick a switch on any given winter’s evening to make the aurora appear.
Another rare Helsinki sighting, from the island of Harakka. I was shooting the frozen Baltic in the afternoon and started getting aurora alerts on my phone. I hung around until after dark and this was my reward.
Oh and that song by Renaissance – you’ll find it here: