Home >mint-lounge >features >Chasing down the northern lights

If you travel to just over 66 degrees north latitude, inside the Arctic circle and up the Kangerlussuaq fjord in Greenland, you will find the little village of Kangerlussuaq. The name, in the Greenlandic Kalaallisut language, means “big fjord", and it is one of the strangest places I’ve visited. For one thing, it’s incredibly young. It evolved out of an American World War II era airbase called Bluie West 8, then became an electronic intelligence gathering station and an early warning facility during the Cold War and finally, after the Soviet Union collapsed, it was turned over to Greenland’s autonomous government for the symbolic amount of $1.

It’s a remote, brutal place that’s simultaneously beautiful because of its bleak surroundings and utterly fascinating history. But I was not in Greenland to study Kangerlussuaq. I had planned to stay for a week and chase down a more ephemeral subject: the Northern Lights, or aurora borealis. Specifically, as a time-lapse video enthusiast, I wanted to capture it in motion.

Kangerlussuaq is home to the Sondrestrom Incoherent Scatter Radar Facility. Behind that rather bland and unrevealing name lies a mission that could help me in my quest. The scientists at Sondrestrom (or Kellyville, as it is affectionately called) study the ionosphere and the Northern Lights and I was sure they would help me find the right place and time to shoot the aurora.

It wasn’t an easy task to accomplish. I had tried in Iceland, my previous stop, and met with only the most meagre success. The Northern Lights need a cold, moonless, cloudless night before they are visible. Iceland had clouds galore and the moon was waning at the time, but it was still bright enough to put a spanner in the works. And even if you’re lucky enough to have all three variables lined up, the Northern Lights only put on the best shows when solar activity is high.

The sun continuously gives off plasma (a gas of free electrons and positive ions) that bombards the earth’s magnetic field like a wind. While the vast majority of the wind is deflected around our planet, some particles do slip in near the poles. When these particles hit molecules of oxygen or nitrogen in the atmosphere, the molecules absorb the extra energy and give off electrons—and light. The light of the aurora borealis. During times of solar turbulence, the volume and speed of the solar wind increases, resulting in bigger, longer-lasting and more impressive aurora displays. Without Earth’s magnetic shield, the atmosphere would be fully exposed to the solar wind and while we would see glorious auroras all over Earth, our atmosphere would be stripped away by the wind. Some scientists believe that this is how Mars may have lost its atmosphere, millions of years ago.

Philippe, my host at Kellyville, is a French Canadian for whom Greenland is actually the furthest south he’s ever lived. He grew up in the Canadian Yukon territories, which is a harsher environment than Greenland, and then spent a couple of decades in Finnish Lapland, as a tourist guide and scout. Now a researcher at Kellyville, he wears many hats, like most other personnel at the facility. He maintains the infrastructure of the computers and other electronics, runs scientific experiments, unclogs pipes when needed and, when I visited, was the site’s generator repair technician as well. If you live in an environment as hostile as Greenland, you have to be able to do whatever it takes to keep the machines that keep you alive working. On the 15km drive from the airport and past the few solitary buildings of the town itself, we chat about the facility, and the work the scientific team does there.

It was September, nearly the end of fall, and all the lakes en route to Kellyville seemed ready to freeze over, the temperature already in the low single digits. Unlike winter, when everything is completely frozen and snowed over, the ground is a profusion of plant growth. Lichens, weeds and little scrub bushes cover every inch of ground. The road itself is an untarred dirt strip, composed of the fine grey alluvial soil that has been ground into being by glaciers. Despite all the vegetation, though, the temperature makes sure that nothing very substantial can grow. There were no trees that survived the winter, and the bushes would soon be bare of leaves. The weeds would die, but not before ensuring their return the next summer, through seeds and shoots that were even now getting ready for the long winter that was due to arrive soon.

Kellyville lies about a kilometre or two from the mouth of the fjord that gives Kangerlussuaq its name. The port at this fjord is operational in the summer months of April-August—this is the means by which Kangerlussuaq is resupplied. The goods sold in the supermarket all year round are imported in three large shipments during these months. When the winter rolls in, the port freezes and Kangerlussuaq is cut off until the next year.

We round the base of two low hills which help defend Kellyville from the up to 70 kmph gusts of wind that are common in winters. There is a gentle slope leading up to the research facility. The road passes utilitarian trailers that comprise the living quarters of the staff (I would be sharing one of these with Philippe) and behind a squat one-storey main building lies the centrepiece of the entire facility—a 32m radar antenna mounted on a World War II gun turret that allows it to swivel and track various parts of the sky. As we drive up and park, I can’t help but gawk. Sitting there in the middle of the rocky and scrub-covered landscape, the 100ft-tall antenna looks utterly out of place, like something built to communicate with an alien race.

Picking our way across the cables and wiring linking the building with multiple sensors on the grounds outside, we enter the main building. The large warehouse-like space houses the various components of machinery that makes the antenna come alive: generators that provide electricity, two incredibly large and powerful lasers that make up an atmospheric measurement system called Lidar (Light Detection and Ranging) and the actual guts of the radar itself, apart from labs, workshops, administrative areas and a recreation room. In the cavernous main area, vast energies conspire to send beams of electromagnetic radiation up through the antenna outside, beaming it into the atmosphere and analysing the echoes (or returns, as they’re called in the scientific trade) to see how densely the electrons are packed in the atmosphere: Higher density values mean that more solar wind particles have been affecting the atmosphere, meaning the Northern Lights are more powerful.

That evening, as I set up my camera on Philippe’s front porch and point it at the sky, which is clear of clouds, I look up and marvel at the amount of technology that is at work that evening, telling me where to point my camera. I was using information developed by scientists and technicians over decades, for what was ultimately a hobby. Of course, this wasn’t entirely for my benefit. The data from Kellyville is distributed across the globe to many researchers who use the measurements to advance humanity’s knowledge about all kinds of subjects—the magnetosphere of Earth, the way solar wind interferes with electronics, the structure of the sun itself. My own limited use of the information is like dipping a very small spoon into an ocean of data.

Behind me, the radar swivels silently, beaming up vast amounts of data and sucking in the returns. Lidar’s narrow, brilliant light stabs upward, like an alien weapon. And, as the night wears on and the stars wheel overhead, a slow shimmer starts developing into a brilliant curtain of light. High above me, the solar wind is beginning its nightly parade across the sky, molecules of oxygen and nitrogen absorbing high energy particles and giving off free electrons and vivid, iridescent light that has fascinated man since the dawn of time. I sit there in the dark, wrapped in fleece and gloves, and let the solar system dance for me.

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