Evening Walk Under a Curtain of Light

Exotic locales can bring out the tourist in even the most seasoned scientist.

Our official reason for a stroll into the Arctic night is to test a simple system of measuring snow depths.

The "ancillary" motive (in researcher-speak) for the after-hours hike, however, is to get a good look at the night sky away from the glare of our ship's lights: We're going aurora spotting.

Four of us trundle down the gangway of our icebreaker hotel to muster in the heated hut used by the ice-studies team.

Jacqueline Richter-Menge, with the US Army Corps of Engineers' Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL) hands me a headlamp and battery. The battery fits in a pouch that goes over the shoulder and under the armpit. Then we put our parkas back on. It's a little awkward. But unless the battery is kept warm, we'll be wandering about on the ice floe without lights.

Don Perovich, with CRREL, leads us to the first marker, where the snow survey begins. Before long, we're over a low ridge and out of the ship's floodlights. Although it's a clear night, a biting east wind whips ice crystals past us, sparkling briefly as they speed through the beams from our headlamps.

In the sky, a tenuous white band appears, stretching from south to west. It doesn't look like much more than a thin cloud layer. Could this be the aerial phenomenon mythologized for centuries? Is this really what the Hudson Bay Inuits call a light bridge to heaven? Where is the glittering snake dance that Europeans once considered an afterlife battle by fallen soldiers?

"Sometimes they look disappointing," says Dr. Richter-Menge. Keep watching, she says, "sometimes they turn into something spectacular."

We work our way down the line of measuring stakes - ski poles really, with adhesive measuring tape running down the side - pausing frequently to look at the band in the sky. It's now longer and thicker than before. Another band appears above it, and our initial disappointment turns to delight.

Standing on the top of the world, we gaze like wide-eyed children on the Fourth of July. Understanding that we are merely witnessing high-speed particles from the sun as they collide with air molecules takes nothing away from this poetry of light. The wisps flicker across the sky like drapery blown by the wind.

As we ogle and point, Taniel Uttal from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrations's Environmental Research Laboratory regales us with Northern Lights trivia. The bottom of the aurora is about 125 miles up. When an aurora occurs here, an identical twin is occurring over the South Pole.

To be sure, this display doesn't quite live up to the pictures in encyclopedias. Our aurora briefly shows only a hint of green at one end; otherwise, it remains a whitish glow that alternately brightens and fades.

We turn from the shimmering spectacle and begin our trek back to the ship. "I used to go out into the field and focus on collecting data," Richter-Menge says.

"Then I learned to look at what was going on around me... and take some time to appreciate it."

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