The Northern Lights Hysteria

For a week at the end of January, due to unusually strong solar activity, the international community of Bergen was swept up in a wave of Northern Lights Hysteria.

This crippling condition led to many hours of lost sleep, many cases of borderline-frostbite, and tears of both pain and joy as we set up phone alert chains, anxiously watched online for hour-by-hour solar flare updates, and quickly learned to make sense of charts like these:

The stress. The waiting. The shivering on icy hillsides as far from the light pollution as we could get by bus and boot. Crossing through satellite neighborhoods at night, on the trails from park to park, we’d pass other groups, disappointed faces and cameras hung uselessly around tired, stiff necks.

“This is my fifth night out. Still nothing. I’m going home,” they would tell us, and we’d nod and promise to call if the sky turned green and the stars started dancing.

I was lucky. Oh yes, I was lucky.

The first time I went out, the activity level was rated at 5 – “Very High.” The lights should be visible, low on the horizon, as far south as Stavanger — and that was kilometers lower than Bergen. What’s more, the sky was clear — basically a miracle in this coastal city. I gathered some friends and we met at Fantoft and made for the King of Norway’s residence in Bergen, the palace of Gamle Haugen.

All the way there, we kept one eye on the icy path and one eye searching the heavens. As we neared the palace, I turned around to ask my friend Emma something, and there, just behind her, something green, could it — it was! I started shouting, and the others came running. It was just a little flicker, a tiny moving green thing in the air.

“It’s not dark enough!” I fretted. “We have to get out from under these street lights!”

“To Gamle Haugen!” cried Lukas, and we took off down the street, ice forgotten, crossed the bridge and threw ourselves up the snowy hillside, scrambling for cameras, as a low but unmistakeable green glow spread across the sky from one mountain to another.

I came back home so ecstatic that my crazed behavior led my Norwegian roommates to recoil from me in fear and my friend Nash, who I Skyped with, to post the following on Facebook:

A few days later, I got another email alert. The biggest solar flare since 2005 had been recorded, and it was scheduled to hit the earth that very night.

Auroral Forecast: 7 – Extreme.
Weather Forecast: Mostly Cloudy.

I felt positive, unstoppable.

As far as I was concerned, Mostly Cloudy < 100% Cloudy. We had a chance, and that was enough.

I grabbed some friends, I commandeered some cars, and we drove up to the north of Bergen, and hid under a bridge at Salhus, looking north over the inlet.

We ate gingerbread cookies and drank chocolate milk and watched the northern sky anxiously.

We laughed at ourselves, obsessing over something the Norwegians took for granted. “Yeah, you can sit out all night looking for the northern lights, or you can just stay home and watch whatever kinds of fantastic light you want come out of the TV…”

We laughed at the power of this crazy phenomenon, how we were slaves to its capriciousness, standing out there shivering and watching and waiting with bated breath.

And we laughed at an old legend I had read, that if you sing about the northern lights or you mock them, they will come down and carry you away. We tried to elect one of our number as a noble sacrifice, to walk out on the ice and call the lights down upon them. Pretty soon, this devolved into us all shouting at the northern lights and hurling mocking insults at them, hoping to provoke them into a show.

In the end, perhaps amused by our pathetic slavishness, a green light began glowing through the clouds. Faint — ever so faint — but there.

We cheered.

And the northern lights smiled down upon us.

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