Hey, where’s the color!?

If you want to see the Northern Lights, Alta is a great place to go.  For one thing, there’s dry land to stand on (try standing in the middle of the Arctic Ocean and see how important that suddenly becomes). Our climate is stable, dry and not so cloudy as other areas.  And of course, only Alta has US here in town to keep our fingers crossed for the visitors, and I’m pretty sure that helps a lot, too.

(Ed: Jon has a sense of humor that is occasionally dry – please keep that in mind)

If you want to see what the aurora looks like, there are thousands of examples out on the Internet ready to be found.  Greens, purples, blues and pinks, swirling and dodging over the landscape (and if you go to YouTube, you can find videos that put them into motion complete with time-lapse photography and celestial music).

But one of the things that photographers, videographers, tour operators and cruise companies forget to tell you – and I think it really is because it doesn’t occur to them, not because it’s a conspiracy – is that when you stand out in a quiet, snowy field, far from the city lights, and the first swipe and swirl overhead begins, most of the time what you see overhead is a glowing gray color, not the vibrant colors that appear in those photographs.

What gives?!?  Are you being tricked by Photoshopped images?  Nope!

Your eyes have two types of light receptors (“rods” and “cones”, and I’ve never been able to keep track of which is which);  one of them sees color and bright light, while the other is able to process fainter light, but does so only in black and white.  When you’re out in the darkness of the countryside, looking at the faint light of the sky, your eyes are seeing only in black and white.  When the aurora appears, it often isn’t intense enough to trigger your color-seeing receptors, so you don’t see the color.

Your camera, however, sees whatever light is out there, so the pictures you take of that gray swirl appear as a striking green.

If you didn’t know this, don’t feel bad!  The first successful high-quality color photographs didn’t start to arrive until after the 1850s, so for countless millennia people have gazed at the aurora never knowing that the display overhead was actually the color of fireworks.

Will you never see those colors with your eye?  You might.  Sometimes, the display is bright enough (or there is enough nearby light) to activate your color receptors, and then you will see some of the color in real time.

Is it worth coming to see the Northern Lights, then, if the color won’t make them look like those pictures on the Internet?  I sure think so! There’s something otherworldly about standing out under the infinite sky (it feels that big, here), watching the always-changing patterns overhead.  If you bring a camera, you’ll get vivid pictures, but you’ll get a sense of discovery and awe by being there that the pictures can never provide.

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