The Northern Lights come south

Last night, there was a large-scale solar storm, bringing the promise of possible aurora sightings further south than is usually even imaginable. It is one of my lifetime ambitions to see the Northern Lights – but, as someone who lives not much more than 50 degrees north, I have to accept that I’m highly unlikely to fulfil it on my own doorstep.

A couple of times I have made it well into the sixties, up to the very fringes of the Arctic Circle in fact – but always in high summer, when the sun barely set and true darkness never fell. The countries where the aurora phenomenon is perhaps most visible, Norway and Iceland, are two countries I do not (no longer) care to visit thanks to their insistence on pursuing commercial whaling. I therefore have my eye on a trip to Lerwick, one of the very few places in Britain where you can get above 60 degrees north.

But last night, here on the fringes of East Anglia, we heeded the real-time Internet tales of auroras visible at Midlands latitutes, leapt into the car at gone midnight and started driving east and north under a tantalisingly clear sky. There was some cloud and a lot of light pollution but eventually we got to a lay-by on a dual carriageway running across a rise in the flat, unpopulated farmland. A break in the hedge gave us a view of the northern horizon, only occasionally interrupted by the sweep of headlights from passing trucks behind us. Above the Milky Way was splashed across the sky – as clear as it ever is once you get away the pervasive glow of sodium lights.

And what did we see? Nothing to make you shout “that’s it, I’ve seen it!” Nothing that left me definitively able to say that I saw an aurora last night. And yet, and yet… I’m no more than, say, 80 per cent certain than I didn’t see it. I’d like to think that, if you encountered the Northern Lights, you couldn’t mistake them (but, then again, perhaps that’s too much to ask at this latitude). I believe that exceptional claims (such as seeing an aurora in East Anglia at less than 53 degrees north) require exceptional proof. I’m also aware of the strong desire to see the phenomenom generating a particularly pungent scepticism in both of us – so concerned were we not to be fanciful and fool ourselves that we were perhaps too harshly dismissive of what we could see.

Which was this.

There was a faint glow just above the horizon with a whitish-green hue (of which the green element was extremely subtle). It could have been caused by light from a settlement reflected on low cloud, and some bars of cloud were definitely visible low in the sky. As far as we knew, there were no towns or villages in that direction, and the places where we had seen lone farms or houses projecting light upwards tended to be brighter, less diffuse and with much sharper edges.

Watching this glow it was possible to think that you could detect the occasional shimmer, a difference in vertical height in the band of glowing light and perhaps the occasional movement higher in the sky above. This could have been a trick of the brain, in fact it probably was, of the kind you get when you stare at a fixed spot for too long and things start to swim. It could also have been caused by artefacts in the eyes caused by glancing into passing car headlights. I have numerous vision problems that arguably make me a particularly unreliable observer of nebulous night-time phenomena; my vision is probably worse after dark than during the day. Certainly my companion in this endeavour has practically nothing wrong with his eyes, and he greatly regretted having to tell me that he could not see the shimmer effect.

So we’d pretty much convinced ourselves we hadn’t seen it. We arrived home and looked at the images others were posting of the phenomenon online – not the gorgeous, spectacular ones from Norway or the US, since we knew for a fact that we hadn’t seen great curtains of green and pink light sweeping across the sky. I’d taken some trouble in the past to look at more tentative, marginal Northern Lights images so I would have some idea what to expect if an opportunity ever arose – the green glow on the horizon, the vertical bands of shimmering light reaching into the sky above.

And then I had a revelation. All these images, mediated through the camera lens, were anything but an objective record of what I could expect to see with my own eyes. It was quite possible my bid to be prepared and to anticipate the event had actually hindered me. Leaving aside the question of whether any photographic image is enhanced subsequent to exposure to heighten its impact, I realised for the first time the significance of the fact that all the photos I had been looking at were incredibly over-exposed in areas other than the sky. The light might be much fainter, less colourful and much more diffuse entering my eye than I had expected from the images I had viewed of auroras beforehand.

Of course, the human imagination and capacity to believe what we want to is nigh limitless. And I can’t say with any credibility or certainty whatsoever that we saw an aurora last night. Especially since I have not yet found any good evidence of anyone else in the Midlands or East Anglia having seen one. But, you know what? I can’t say definitively that we didn’t either. I stay with the assessment we made at the time of at most a 20 per cent likelihood. That’s enough to send a shiver down the spine. And send our thoughts in the direction of Lerwick for the predicted solar storms of 2012.