The Aurora Chaser
“It’s like real magic happening in front of your eyes!” Astronomer Tom Kerss tells us why he can’t get enough of the Northern Lights in Norway. Interview by Emma Fast-Field.
Can you remember the first time you saw the Northern Lights?
I was probably about five years old. It was when we lived near Lossiemouth, on the northeast coast of Scotland, in the early 1990s. If you stand on the beach there, you can sometimes see Northern Lights displays in winter, but nothing like what you get in Norway with ribbons of light flowing overhead.
Being so young at the time, I only have vague memories of seeing that glow on the horizon. But I do remember asking my parents about it. My dad said it was the Northern Lights and I couldn't stop thinking about them. It was one of the experiences that first got me into space and astronomy.
It wasn’t until around 2007 that I decided to take my first ‘proper’ Northern Lights trip. I’ll never forget the overwhelming first impression of seeing the Northern Lights properly. I was spellbound. I got out of the car, walked towards it with my camera in one hand – and put my foot straight through the ice of a frozen river! The cold water brought me back to Earth quick, as you can imagine, but I was soon arrested back into the sky. It was amazing. I got very lucky to see a remarkable display on that first attempt.
Since then, I've seen aurora of all sorts of strength, from docile and faint to powerful storms. That first ‘proper’ experience was on the upper end of the scale. Not everybody gets so lucky the first time, although earlier this year we did have a fantastic sighting on the ship – probably one of the best I've seen in 10 years. There were many first-timers on board, and they loved that they were with a team of aurora chasers telling them, ‘It hasn’t been like this for a long time!’
Left: I actually took a photo of the frozen stream that caught me out when I was staring in awe at my first ‘proper’ Northern Lights! It's not the greatest photo by any means, but you can see the hole in the ice behind me, just next to where I'm standing. Right: This is me as a kid on the Highlands coast. I can’t remember where exactly – it was a long time ago – but it was taken around the time I first saw the Northern Lights, when we lived in Lossiemouth and made occasional trips to Orkney.
Where have you seen the Northern Lights so far?
Apart from Canada, almost exclusively in Lapland, Norway, and Iceland. But Norway is definitely my favourite. Norway has the most dramatic foreground I've ever seen. While Iceland is a wonderful bit of dry land to stand on and see the Northern Lights, it's rather blackened. Norway’s northern regions are dazzling. The mountains are amazing.
Describe your ideal Northern Lights viewing experience.
I have two! The first is on my own. I jump in the car and drive out past where the streetlights stop to somewhere so wild that I don't have a sense of any kind of civilisation around. I want to connect with the ancientness of the ground and the sky. I’m seeking the immutability of nature, that knowing that the ground beneath my feet is billions of years old, that the sky above is billions of years old, but then seeing the aurora moving in real time. It’s that contrast of a dynamic display over an ancient landscape or skyscape.
The other experience I love is watching the reactions of people who've never seen the Northern Lights before. When the first bright features start to appear, the excitement that people have is soul filling. It's palpable. Some people go silent, and others say… everything! Enjoying other people's reactions has become a uniquely wonderful experience for me.
I’m lucky that I can have it both ways!
Here’s a photo I took while aurora-watching with a group. Nowadays I find watching the reactions of the people I’m with as rewarding as seeing the Northern Lights.
What goes through your head when you watch the Northern Lights?
I usually forget about the science initially. There are always a few minutes of plain awe when any Northern Lights display starts to pick up. Then, as I've become keen on the short-term forecasting of auroras, especially if I'm with a group of people, often I watch the dynamics and try to clue people in on where to look next.
As I've become more analytical, the experience has lost some of its mystery – but none of its magic. I understand what's happening, but I still feel the same way I felt that first time. I still think it's extraordinary that the Northern Lights happen at all. Unless you've experienced seeing them, you probably think of the aurora as set dressing for a magical winter place in films and shows – we even talk about the role of the Northern Lights in popular culture on the Astronomy Voyages. And they are magical, but they are also real.
Have you experienced everything about the Northern Lights by now?
It’s known that, on very, very rare occasions, the Northern Lights can make wonderful crackling sounds. There are even legends about the Northern Lights making noises from the people of the northern Canadian territories.
But a specific set of conditions need to form for auroras to speak to us: very still air, that then cools very quickly. When that happens, a warm air layer can get trapped, which acts as a static gap for charge to build up during a very active display. The charge then results in a crackling sound.
It's the white whale for any aurora chaser to hear them. But in my 250-odd nights of aurora chasing, I’ve never heard them. Yet! I’m hopeful that I will one day!
Why do you think it's important for us as humans to have a relationship with the night sky?
We stand to learn a lot about ourselves by learning about the universe. We're not disconnected from the universe. It's not somewhere ‘out there’. We are in it, and it is in us, in the sense that we are made of bits of the universe; we carry bits of stars inside us.
I’m a scientist and science is an act of storytelling, with the stories anchored in things like experiment and observation. How we share ideas and make the world the way we want it to be relies upon storytelling. Before there were any written records, our ancestors inked stories in starlight and placed them in the sky where nobody can ruin them.
Having a connection to the universe gives us a portal to our own ancestry and our shared history. The Zodiac is a good example. It’s a tapestry of stories containing characters that represent archetypes and things that are of shared importance. Virgo holds an ear of wheat because she's the goddess of wheat and the harvest. Wheat was the first crop to be cultivated, allowing humans to go from being nomadic to settling down. It was the birth of civilisation and of philosophy.
So, in a far-out, hand-wavy kind of way, the night sky is a way to connect across time with our shared humanity, and it allows us to connect deeply with ourselves in terms of our own deep time ancestry, before evolution on Earth, before the formation of the Earth, back to the first stars, back to the Big Bang. It gives us a hugely expansive perspective. That's why I want people to make it a part of their lives.
What do your friends and family think of your fascination with the Northern Lights?
Everybody I know knows that I love the Northern Lights! My family love my passion, but they don't all share it in quite the same way. Like many people, they see the beauty of the Northern Lights in photographs but can find the actual experience of seeing the Lights first-hand quite challenging.
It's cold, bitterly sometimes, but for me that’s part of the otherworldly sense of the aurora. Many people don’t really understand why I would willingly spend my free time going to some of the coldest places in the world! For me, however cold it might be, going to see the Northern Lights is my stress relief.
That’s one of the nice things about the Astronomy Voyages aboard Hurtigruten. You get the best of both worlds on the ship. It’s a floating hotel. You can go out on deck and feel like you're in the Arctic, then go inside and have a cup of coffee straight away.
This is my very first 'proper' aurora photo. It's not spectacular but it captures a special moment in my life so it’s sentimental for me.
Finally, what keeps you going back for more?
That's easy! The aurora offers something that nothing else in the sky or I think on Earth offers, and that is a promise that the best display of my life is yet to come. I don't know when it's going to be, but I do know that I don't want to miss it.
The night skies are a fabulous thing to spend your time observing, but the sky and constellations don't change very much. However, the Northern Lights are unique every single time. You'll never ever see the same display twice and indeed, no one will ever see the display that you saw.
For me, it's like going to see a unicorn. If you knew it was there, you would want to go and see it. You'd be compelled to because it's like real magic happening in front of your eyes.
That's what compels people to become addicted to aurora chasing. Everybody I know who's seen the Northern Lights says it’s a memory of a lifetime. And that’s even if they've seen what I would consider a fairly average or below average display. For a lot of people, that's enough. They feel satisfied. But 10% of people become horribly addicted. And, like me, they keep coming back.