My trip to see the Northern Lights

For many years I have wanted to see the Aurora, or Northern Lights. I have tried numerous times from Ireland, however, luck never went my way. On a few occasions, I managed to capture a photo of the green glow over the horizon but never with the naked eye. It is possible to see the Aurora from Ireland but it is rare and the weather has to be clear at the same time which often isn’t the case. The best option is to plan a trip to somewhere further north such as Iceland, Norway, Alaska or Canada to give yourself the best chance. This by no means guarantees a sighting but definitely shifts the odds in your favor.

Dim green Aurora glow taken near Shercock, Co. Cavan. Image: Paul Smith

To explain what causes the Aurora, we need to start at the Sun. There is a stream of electrons and protons from the Sun which travels towards Earth known as the solar wind. The amount of particles varies which is why we don’t get the auroras every night and why sometimes they move further south. For this to happen, you need a solar flare to occur and the frequency of these change over the course of 11 year cycles known as the Solar Cycle. If Earth had no protection, this wind would strip our atmosphere away, leaving the earth uninhabitable. This is what we think happened to Mars.

Luckily the Earth has a molten core which spins and this causes a magnetic field to surround the planet, protecting it. As the solar wind flows towards Earth, the particles are directed around the Earth by the magnetic field. In some cases, where there are a lot of particles, some are directed down into the atmosphere around the north and south poles. When these electrons and protons dive into the atmosphere, they collide with the oxygen and nitrogen atoms. An atom is made up a nucleus surrounded by electrons. Electrons can only be at certain energy levels. When the electrons from the Sun, collide with the atoms in the atmosphere they “excite” the atom by giving it a little energy and this causes the electrons around it to jump up to the next energy level. The atom doesn’t like being in this “excited” state and so to return to its previous energy state, it needs to give up the energy gained and it does this by producing a little light.

This February, I travelled to Iceland in the hope of seeing the Aurora. In the week leading up to the trip, I started to have my doubts that we would see the Aurora at all as the long range weather forecast wasn’t good, with a lot of showery weather and cloud forecast. It didn’t improve as the trip came closer but I tried to cling onto the hope that we would get a clear spell and the Aurora would make an appearance. We stayed in Reykjavik so had arranged to join a bus trip to a dark location to spot the lights. It was overcast when we landed and we travelled through intermittent snow showers on the way to the city. Although some short clear spells were forecast for later in the evening, the Aurora forecast wasn’t good. Shortly after arriving we received word the trip was cancelled which wasn’t much of a surprise at that point.

The trip was rebooked for the following evening and I have to admit that we were not confident in it going ahead. While the Aurora forecast was a lot better than the previous evening, the weather wasn’t. We spent the day exploring the Thingvellir National Park which was amazing but at times there was very heavy snow. I was kind of surprised when it was confirmed the trip was going ahead but was happy to take any chance we could get to catch a glimpse of the Aurora. As we set off, another snow shower had just started. We headed for a lighthouse about an hour outside the city which the guide said made a good foreground for pictures. She also said that they hadn’t seen the lights in two weeks due to bad weather. But about 30 mins into the drive, the sky cleared and there they were!

The driver quickly pulled over to a little church down by the coast. We got out and managed to get quick view of the the green bands above us. On this occasion, the Aurora was like a curtain. I managed to get one quick photo just as the sky closed in and the snow started again. We continued onto the the original location and I was delighted we had been so lucky to see them at all, but was hoping that we might get the opportunity to see them again. Just after arriving at the lighthouse, the sky cleared and we got another sighting but this one was short lived. With the cold biting and the snow starting again, we retreated to the comfort of a nearby coffee shop for a coffee to warm up. Just before 11pm someone came in and said the lights were visible again.

This time was special. There were green bands stretching right across the sky which appear to twist and bend. As we watched for the next few minutes, you could see the bands moving slowly as if they were blowing in the wind. I was able to capture some photos to remember the moment by. It was just spectacular to see the Aurora with my own eyes and I intend to keep eye out for them here in Ireland but if that doesn’t work out I will definitely plan another trip north to see them.

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