North­ern Lights

When the sky be­gins to dance

Let's Travel - - U.S.A. | ALASKA - By Melissa De­Vaughn

When my hus­band was a boy grow­ing up in Alaska’s De­nali Na­tional Park, he used to be spooked by the aurora bo­re­alis, those mys­te­ri­ous-look­ing lights that fill the north­ern skies like spat­tered paint dancing over a can­vas. When the soft glow of lights would be­gin to flicker across the sky, fad­ing in and out of fo­cus in greens, pinks and whites, he swore they were spec­tres. In fact, no mat­ter how much his par­ents tried to ex­plain to him, he thought they were shad­owy ghosts, hov­er­ing above in the dark­ness.

This Far North phe­nom­e­non turns an aver­age win­ter, fall or spring night into a widescreen ex­trav­a­ganza like noth­ing else. When you see the lights for the first time, there are no words and no de­scrip­tion to match their mag­nif­i­cence. You can only watch in won­der. Such beauty is a rare and oft-ad­mired thing. We Alaskans are lucky to count the north­ern lights as one of our win­ter “at­trac­tions”.

Search­ing for them is not quite like wildlife-view­ing how­ever. If you look long enough you will def­i­nitely see an an­i­mal — a beaver, a rab­bit, a moose or a bear. But the north­ern lights are on their own timetable, com­ing when at­mo­spheric con­di­tions align in such a way as to make their ac­tiv­ity more un­pre­dictable. The north­ern­lights watcher can only hope to be in Alaska when those con­di­tions are right and to be thank­ful for it when the aurora does come.

Auro­ras can oc­cur be­tween mid-Au­gust and April. But in the win­ter, when dark­ness pre­vails, the lights stand out even brighter and can be seen longer…this is be­tween De­cem­ber and March.

Sunspots and so­lar flares are the root of the aurora, ac­cord­ing to Charles Deehr, aurora fore­caster at the Univer­sity of Alaska Fair­banks Geo­phys­i­cal In­sti­tute. He says the north­ern lights are caused by so­lar flares that ionise par­ti­cles in the up­per at­mos­phere. The charged par­ti­cles are drawn through space to the mag­netic north (and south) poles, where they travel down the poles like beads of wa­ter on a wire. When the par­ti­cles hit the earth’s at­mos­phere, rib­bons of pur­ple, blue, red and green weave to­gether, turn­ing the win­ter sky into a ce­les­tial kalei­do­scope.

Bright yel­low-green (al­most lime-coloured) lights are the most com­mon, hov­er­ing some 60 - 70 miles up in the sky. Pur­ple and blue hues are par­tic­u­larly beau­ti­ful.

Fair­banks, in the heart of Alaska’s In­te­rior, is one of the best places on earth for aurora watch­ing be­cause of its close prox­im­ity to the North Pole. There are sev­eral tour com­pa­nies that of­fer aurora ex­pe­di­tions or op­por­tu­ni­ties to view the north­ern lights. Re­mote cab­ins, away from the city lights, will bring you closer to the aurora, or travel by dog team at night. Guided tours will take you into the high coun­try to see the North­ern Lights and learn about ‘mush­ing’.

“Fair­banks’ po­si­tion un­der the “Auro­ral Oval” (a ring-shaped re­gion around the North Pole) makes it one of the best places in the world to see the aurora bo­re­alis,” said Amy Geiger, of the Fair­banks Con­ven­tion and Vis­i­tors Bureau. “Our lo­ca­tion of­fers a great bal­ance of clear nights, oc­cur­rence fre­quency and ac­tiv­ity that draws people from all over the world.”

Ac­cord­ing to the Geo­phys­i­cal In­sti­tute, one of the leading north­ern lights re­search in­sti­tu­tions in the world, the best time to see the aurora is at about mid­night, give or take an hour depend­ing upon day­light sav­ings time.

In Alaska, the North­ern Lights ac­tu­ally oc­cur any­where from 40 - 100 per­cent of the nights in an aver­age year, depend­ing on the

lo­ca­tion in the state. The fur­ther north you travel, the more fre­quent the oc­cur­rences. How­ever, cli­matic changes such as clouds, snow or sum­mer­time day­light can af­fect the view­ing of the lights.

Don’t worry, though. In Fair­banks and other north­ern points, the lights just come to you. You don’t have to search them out.

My hus­band and I pre­fer the more mys­ti­cal side of the north­ern lights. Once, while driv­ing along a beach­front road in Ke­nai, a town in South Cen­tral Alaska, we had to stop the car. The lights were so dra­matic, so sweep­ing in blues, greens and faint tinges of pink, it was hard to con­cen­trate on driv­ing. We just had to stop and watch.

An­other time, while camped out­side with my sled dogs, I watched the lights dance be­hind the moun­tains across the val­ley and I could have sworn I heard them. The Geo­phys­i­cal In­sti­tute has found no proof that the lights ac­tu­ally make sound, but says a swish­ing noise re­ported by ob­servers over the years could be at­trib­uted to leak­age of the elec­tri­cal im­pulses from the nerves in the eye into the part of the brain that pro­cesses sound.

What­ever you choose to be­lieve, sci­ence has dis­cov­ered much about the North­ern Lights, but a lit­tle mys­tery is fun, too. A visit to Alaska in the win­ter­time is not com­plete un­til you’ve seen the sky dance.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from New Zealand

© PressReader. All rights reserved.