The One Thing I Want To Experience Before I Die

Aurora. The picture is taken by Jan Holmgård at Andøya Space Center in 2015.

Aurora. The picture is taken by Jan Holmgård at Andøya Space Center in 2015.

If there is one thing that may not be so fantastic about living under the Northern Lights in Gulfstream-warmed Northern Norway, it is that one has to up the ante a little when thinking about one’s goals in life. Auroras, for example, are fascinating in their own right. But since they occur every winter, they cannot serve as “The One Thing I Want To Experience Before I Die”.

That is, if anything, a first-world problem, isn’t it? I think so. But I am a scientist at heart; I have weird goals in life. I would sincerely love to see both Auroras and Noctilucent clouds together, just once. Why? Because seeing them together is as special as it gets. Do you know what needs to happen for these things to be observed together by somebody? I will give you a hint: Nature is intrinsically chaotic. We will start from there.

Auroras are caused by strong particle streams from the Sun, which are connected to magnetic turbulence on the solar surface. We can predict how the strength and number of the turbulences vary with time, but we have no way of telling when exactly things will happen. And even if we could, things would have to happen in our direction. And if they did, they would have to happen in the right way for us to feel it. For example: turn around the magnetic field of the particle stream and there will be no Aurora. Even if the particle stream has the right orientation in its magnetic field, it still has to be strong enough to produce Aurora.

Let us talk Noctilucent clouds. Up to a hundred tons of stone are ground into dust in the Earth’s middle atmosphere every day. During summer, some of the resulting small particles in the polar regions serve as nucleation seeds to ice crystals. Get enough of them together, and you get Noctilucent clouds. They generally occur almost exactly under the Auroral oval. But one needs a dark sky behind them to see them. That means, one needs the Sun under the horizon, which does not happen under the Auroral oval in the summer time. That means that when Noctilucent clouds are there, one can neither see them nor Aurora – if one lives in Gulfstream-warmed Northern Norway.

So, is it possible to see Aurora and Noctilucent clouds together? Yes. If you are willing to travel and then wait for a lifetime. You see, Noctilucent clouds are visible in a geographical belt just outside the polar regions, where the Sun just begins to go down below the horizon in the summer time. You will sit there and see Noctilucent clouds rather frequently during the summer months. What you will wait for, is the rare Aurora, which is so strong that it will push far enough to the South for you to see it together with the Noctilucent Clouds[1]. Basically, you will have to stand outside every summer night for a couple of years and hope for the best. The one thing that may help is that you can stay in when the weather is bad, since you will not see a thing anyway.

But that is not much of a consolation, is it? Better to go on YouTube, you know, like this: Video by Spider Project.

(Thanks to Sebastian Holmgård.)


[1] Did I mention that both phenomena only last for about one to two hours at a time? Well, now I told you at any rate. And I could go on about, for example, the duration of the visible part of the Aurora amongst other things, but I will stop at this point.


2015-03-14 18.46.20Alexander is a physicist, teacher and science communicator who is currently working at the Norwegian Centre for Space-related Education at Andøya Space Center in Norway. Even though, in his case, work and play do overlap, the content on this webpage is entirely private. You can follow Alexander on Twitter, Facebook and Google +.

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