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December 1999

Northern Lights: The Sky Will Dance

Like shimmering rainbows in the night, the northern lights electrify the sky with color.

Even before the sound stopped ringing in my ears, I was sitting straight up in my sleeping bag, yanked fully awake out of a deep winter sleep by what had sounded like the very crust of the Earth giving away beneath me.

I was alone, camped on the ice of Lake Superior, tucked in a bay just off the north shore of Basswood Island, a part of Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin. In the -20° F cold, the lake ice was restless, booming and cracking. Although it was several feet thick and safe to camp on, the noise was disconcerting. There’d be little sleep tonight. I unzipped the tent for a look outside.

That’s when I saw it. The northern lights were out. Brilliant flames of green light, tinged with orange at the edges, blazed across the northern horizon. Not soft and distant like so many other aurora displays I’d seen, this one was clear and bright, so close it seemed as if I could stir the colors with my outstretched fingers. And then there was the ice, clear in places with long stretches as smooth as a skating rink, reflecting perfectly every spear of light.

I climbed out of the tent, slipped into my boots, and began walking. I was suddenly surrounded by northern lights, above and below. The colors overhead flickered and danced in unison with those on the ice. It was like being in a kaleidoscope.

As I walked, I remembered naturalist Sigurd Olson’s description of skating on a lake as the ice reflected the aurora. He wrote of gliding “through a sea of changing color caught between the streamers above and below.” I tried a few skating strides in my heavy boots, but slid only a few feet. Instead, I stopped, sat down, and laid back on the ice. “At that moment,” Olson wrote of lying back on his own frozen lake, “I was part of the aurora, part of its light and of the great curtain that trembled above me.” I stared up into the lights until I shivered-whether from the cold or from the sheer beauty of the sky above, I couldn’t say.

On every clear, dark night the northern lights, or aurora borealis, are shining somewhere in the North American sky. Fairbanks, Alaska, gets, on average, 243 displays a year; Yellowknife and Fort Smith in Canada’s Northwest Territories get even more. Places as far south as Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness or Mt. Katahdin, Maine, can have 40 or 50 nights a year when the lights play in the sky. Usually, that is.

Scientists say those numbers could go up dramatically this coming summer, when solar sunspot activity, which triggers the northern lights, reaches the high point in its 11-year cycle. During the last such peak period, in 1989, the aurora was visible as far south as Alabama, Florida, and even Jamaica and Honduras.

But just how visible and intense the lights will be is an astronomical question mark. “Predicting exactly what’s going to happen during a peak is like predicting the weather,” says Daniel Osborne, a senior project engineer with the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. “It is not always terribly accurate.

“Take a place like Minneapolis,” he explains. “Under normal conditions, folks there can expect to see the aurora on, say, 20 percent of their nights. But that can go up to 60 or 80 percent during the maximum sunspot activity.” The lights may be much more active, as well, flashing all over the sky, flickering more brilliantly, lingering for hours. Will it happen this time? “Maybe,” Osborne laughs. “Maybe.”

There is something comforting in the fact that even with computers and satellites, we still cannot accurately predict the northern lights. Part of their wonder lies in their mystery. Although there are auroral forecasts available by phone and on the Internet, there are no guarantees. The same night sky that was blank for hours can suddenly flare to life just as you zip the tent shut. Or a sky blazing with light can instantly go dark.

You take your chances when looking for the northern lights, but it’s a search well worth pursuing. To stand under a sky shimmering like a rainbow gone wild is to stare directly into the wondrous. The beauty goes beyond science and touches the soul. “You can look at a thousand pictures of the aurora,” Osborne says, “but if a picture is worth a thousand words, one sight of a real aurora is worth a thousand pictures.”

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