Friday, January 27, 2012

Space Weather, Earth Weather, and Northern Lights

Hope and Disappointment in Iceland
With the express hope of seeing the aurora borealis (aka the northern lights), some British friends joined me and my wife in Iceland this past week.

Why Iceland?  Well for me, I think I have to go ... after all, it is the home of seals and poets, as this ad inside the airport very clearly claims.

Our main goal was to bask in the aftermath of solar storms.  Short version: the sun discharges subatomic particles, those hit the earth's magnetic atmosphere, and in a circumpolar donut-shaped ring, the result is an aerial display of shimmering lights high in a clear night sky.

This figure above and the one below come from Discovering the Universe by Neil Comins and William Kaufmann (New York: Freeman, 2000).  The first figure shows the solar wind, and the second, the display ring where northern lights most typically can be seen --- across the top edge of Canada, the middle part of Greenland, the top of Iceland, and so on around to Siberia.
Not so much here in Los Angeles, where our night skies are the lights of Las Vegas, but in other countries, especially in Europe, winter "getaways" to see the northern lights are big business.  I have been collecting travel articles on this topic for many years, as the scanned pages below reveal.

In Iceland this too is a thriving industry, and one can buy coffee table books in just about every gift shop.  Here is one that somebody was kind enough to give me, a day or two after arrival.

Problem is, it's a bit of a Rubik's Cube.  You need to be in the right place (Iceland or Siberia), it needs to be a moonless night, the solar flares have to be happening (or rather, have to have happened a few days prior to viewing), and, the hardest part, the skies locally have to be clear.

Iceland in winter is not so good that way.  Here is a postcard of the a waterfall, Gullfloss.  ("Gull" here means "gold" or "golden," not "seagull.")

This postcard shot was taken in summer.  Here is what it looked like when I was there.

I would have taken more pictures but the camera, on a tripod to steady it in the bashing wind, was getting so iced up I could not see out the viewfinder in order to frame the shot.

So the question is, how do we then process this fact?  Weather is often described in moral terms: good weather and bad weather, and if you have bad weather, you're perceived as suffering misfortune. 

Yet the reality is, weather is constant (there is never a moment of our lives when there is no weather happening), and, further, weather is neutral.  It is just "is."  It is like gravity or sunlight: it is merely a neutral fact, without moral implication.  Hurricanes and earthquakes are not evil, they just are manifestations of the physical world, and, conversely, a sunny day is not nice.  It may feel nice to go for a walk on a sunny day, but that's me, not the sky; the sunlight is not deciding to be nice on purpose.  (And if you have had skin cancer, you know that sunlight is a very dangerous thing.)

So when we were in Iceland, clouds made the aurora viewing a bit tricky.  In the image below, what look like stars are, in some cases, "noise" --- randomly misfiring pixels on the camera sensor.  The green smudge in the middle is a dimly appearing aurora, partly blocked by cloud cover.

Was that bad luck or some kind of misfortune, to have "bad" weather?  Not really.  First, it was expected: statistics warned me what mid-winter weather was going to be like.  Second, if weather is just weather, then it is up to me to accept that --- to find a way to be happy in the reality that I have been born into.  I think weathermen perpetuate this too, and instead of grousing about the forecast, we should just accept the world for what it is.  Look at these Icelandic ponies, living out their winter in a fenced but no-barn pasture.  They seem not to think that anything is amiss.

The same weather that blocked my norhern lights viewing most evenings also gave me the sunrises that made my photographs glow with golden light the next day.  Here is sunrise in a cemetery.  No clouds?  Then no golden light.  Simple physics.

The quote unquote bad weather brought the wild swans close to town.  These were just photographed with a standard lens, no huge telephoto required.

The weather also gave me the moody background and coating of snow that made these church spires so visually attractive.  (Iceland has a lot of very lovely churches, as a side note.)  This picture is an example of double serendipity, in that not only was the weather such that the picture is better, but even to find this church was an accident, since we had gotten lost trying to drive to someplace else entirely.  We pulled over in a parking lot to look at the map, and I fell in love with the monochrome austerity of these heavenly spires.

Even on clear days, we still had "weather" in the form of the cold temperature.  This geyser is even better in winter than summer because the hot water turns to steam and then lingers --- a larger, more slow motion version of Old Faithful.

And of course, there are always the pleasures of when one steps in from the weather into the cafe for a cup of coffee.  Or, better yet, if you're tired of getting snowed on and feeling a bit in need of the royal spa treatment, for about twenty US dollars, you can enjoy that Icelandic tradition, the hot seaweed bath . . . .

What does it feel like?  I saw this sign while en route to the airport, to fly back.  I just will have to go back to Iceland another time, in order to find out.

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