Observing the aurora

Graham Southorn takes a trip to Norway to see the Northern Lights
Image Credit: 
Paul Money

By Graham Southorn


Nothing had prepared me for the speed and fluidity of the Northern Lights. It was as if the hand of an unseen artist was painting enormous, jagged brushstrokes right across the sky, only for them to fade and new ones to burst into life. It was an utterly absorbing, almost overwhelming spectacle, with great swathes of green bands filling my peripheral vision for over an hour.

It was a great night. For the previous four hours, though, it had looked like it wouldn’t turn out that way at all. I’d gone to Norway very hopeful of seeing something. This was, after all, Bardufoss – a small community at the northernmost tip of Norway. At 69°N, we were so far north we were 3° inside the Arctic Circle.

The local airport, previously accustomed only to the roar of military jets, had been renamed Snowman International to commemorate its first ever commercial flight – ours. The TV crew from The Sky at Night, plus Jon Culshaw and Dr Lucie Green, were also onboard, and if you saw the programme they made, then you'll have subconsciously seen me coming out of the airport door (my two seconds of fame).

One big advantage of travelling to Bardufoss was immediately apparent. The drive from the airport to our accommodation in a ski resort, also called Snowman, was only about half an hour. And rather than a long drive to get out into the wilderness, it was just a few minutes’ walk from the ski chalets to a traditional Sami dinner in a tepee and a flat expanse of snow from where we could watch and wait for the show.

We didn’t have to wait long. Almost as soon as we’d gone outside, faint bands of green light began to appear, scrawling their signature low over the mountain. There was a palpable sense of excitement as we began to anticipate the dazzling light show that would surely follow – excitement that quickly evaporated when the display abruptly stopped. We waited, waited, and waited some more – in vain, or so we thought.

At least the waiting provided ample time for a good look at the stars. I say 'good', but this was 19 March 2011 – the night of the large, bright ‘Supermoon’. There was some artificial light pollution too, from the tepees and nearby buildings. But at least it was clear. Earlier in the day, it had looked far from promising when the sky had been blanketed by cloud.

After a while, the cold started to bite. We were well-equipped, having been provided with full body suits, hats and gloves, and we were lucky the temperature wasn’t lower – it had dropped to around –10°C but a few weeks earlier it had nearly got down to –30°C. But the fact remains that hanging around outside is no way to keep warm.

I’d decided to call it a night, and was disappointedly trudging back to my chalet when I heard a shout urging me to come back down. It was Paul Money, Sky at Night Magazine’s reviews editor, who was hastily setting up his camera gear.

I’m so glad Paul shouted when he did, because seeing the aurora was an experience I'll never forget – the experience of a lifetime, in fact.

Graham travelled to Norway with Omega Holidays. Don't miss the November issue of Sky at Night Magazine, featuring our nine-page Ultimate Guide to the Aurora


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