I had an uncertain glimpse of it once, on the remote island of Harris in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides more than twenty years ago. I cowered from a biting wind behind a stone wall at three in the morning, wrapped in a quilt and trying to convince myself I could see tinges of green between the scudding clouds.
When I visited Iceland this year, the end of the Northern Lights ‘season’, which runs from October to April, was imminent. Of course, there’s no real seasonality to the charged solar winds that occur year round, but in daylight or twilight they’re invisible. In April, with summer approaching, Iceland’s nights are getting shorter by seven minutes every day, meaning it’s harder and harder to achieve the deep darkness needed to witness the lights.
One night we drove far out of Reykjavik to an isolated icy field, far from the city’s lights. It was a clear, cloudless night, and a typical minus eight degrees. Sunset occurred at 11pm, but full darkness took another two hours. Around 1am, a line of palest green danced slowly across the eastern horizon, like a wisp of smoke. Over the next hour, wisps came and went, building sometimes towards the zenith of the night sky. In between, we huddled together for warmth inside the trucks, trying to uncramp our hands long enough to operate the long exposures on our cameras.
What happened next was almost indescribable. The lights began to meander upwards from every point on the horizon. They built in colour and intensity, until we could see unfurling ribbons of green with edges of purple, pink, and red. The whole sky came alive with dancing lights spiralling, streaming, twisting and undulating. All thoughts of being cold vanished. I looked directly overhead, and suddenly I was below the surface of streaming river currents of light above me.
Then, just as it came, it died away. I was left with shivers and the feeling of having experienced something truly miraculous in nature. So as the nights lengthen, take heart - because long nights mean there is more chance to see this ethereal marvel, this burst of visible solar energy.