January 6, 1996

Aurora Borealis
The Northern Lights over Long Island

I wouldn't have believed it. Last night, January 5, Sue asked me to look through the balcony door; while giving the cats a late-night treat, she saw some glowing lines in the sky and wondered whether it was the contrails of a high-flying plane or the start of an aurora.

Sure enough: an aurora. The first I've seen while on Long Island (but I know of a famous one seen down the east coast many years ago -- which I had missed).

On go all the warmest clothing, as it was 11 at night and about 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

Unfortunately, the indirect light around here tends to muffle the sky, but there was no mistaking the two sinuous bars of light as they walked across the sky, moving from west to east. Toward the east itself, a third bar could be vaguely seen.

A fourth bar formed toward the west, and its grayish-greenish bar made the long journey across the sky.

The fifth (and last) was the most impressive of the evening; slight undulations and a touch of purple could be seen during its passage.

A simple aurora

A fast little sketch of L.I. aurora (Photoshop),
best seen in 24-bit mode

My first -- and best acquaintance with an aurora -- was in Iceland one evening. Sue had spotted some bars of light on the horizon in the early part of the evening, but I told her it was probably clouds. On the way back to the hotel from a puppet play, we saw that the bars had expanded in size to arc through most of the sky. There were two main ones and a smaller fellow. All three had a soft glow.

We reached the hotel, changed to warm clothing (for early December), waited outside for something to happen -- and occasionally ducked back indoors to get warm (nothing like standing still on a cold night).

Around midnight or a little after, it happened . . . as if someone lit those "bars," for suddenly they were all energy. Folds upon folds of translucent purplish-green light ran up and down the arcs (which covered an area of the sky about equal to, say, the Milky Way). Transparencies upon transparencies over and over again (impossible to focus on any one of them) -- and yet delicate, very delicate. Stars could easily be seen through the aurora's light.

For about a half hour, Sue and I were entertained by one of the most spectacular -- and quiet! -- events of nature. And then the aurora assumed its duller glow and became quiescent.

Perhaps one of the first mentions of aurora is in the King's Mirror, by an unknown Norwegian author who lived during the thirteenth century and who wrote the book to describe life to his "son"; there's an English translation of the book, probably out of print, from Twayne and the American-Scandinavian Foundation.

The anonymous writer's description of the aurora is still very good (although he attributes the aurora's to being seen only over Greenland):

    In appearance they resemble a vast flame of fire viewed from a great distance. It also looks as if sharp points were shot from this flame up into the sky; these are of uneven height and in constant motion, now one, now another darting highest; and the light appears to blaze like a living flame.

A more modern account of the northern lights is Neil Davis's The Aurora Watcher's Handbook (University of Alaska Press, 1992). The book is somewhat technical in places but includes some good photos and folklore background.

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