Most of us live a long way from the high latitudes where we could see the fascinating and beautiful northern lights. There are films and videos of them, but nothing that conveys the way they look when they dance across the sky above you in the stillness of a winter night.
But could a similar experience be contrived using modern cameras to make a film for projection on the dome of a digital theater? Terence Murtagh thought so. This was the aim of the former director of the Armagh Planetarium in Northern Ireland, and the result of his efforts was Experience the Aurora. Murtagh wrote, directed and narrated the 25-minute film which was released by Evans & Sutherland Digital Theater in 2011. The team spent seven months - an entire aurora season - filming in the Arctic Circle.
They went to Alaska, Svalbard and Tromsø in Norway, and Kiruna in Sweden to capture major auroral events. Probably the most dramatic site was the island of Svalbard which is just 900km (560 miles) from the North Pole. The conditions are daunting, even dangerous. One night they spent five hours outside at -40 degrees and it was even colder the next night. In addition, on Svalbard you need to keep watch for polar bears. They may look cute and cuddly in pictures, but the polar bear is the largest land carnivore and very dangerous.
From the film we learn about what causes aurorae. Charged particles from the Sun are funneled into Earth's upper atmosphere around the magnetic poles. When they collide with oxygen and nitrogen molecules in the atmosphere, light is given off in certain colors. However I thought it was a bit misleading to say that aurorae are related to sunspots so that "more sunspots meant more aurorae." This is broadly true because when the Sun is more active, we're more likely to see sunspots and to see greater auroral activity. Nevertheless although sunspots are one indicator of solar activity, we can have dramatic aurorae even when there are no sunspots.
The film has many good features, but I have some reservations about its success in recreating the experience of seeing the northern lights. It's very difficult to film an aurora in real time, so time-lapse photography is used to make videos. Most videos seem to speed up the aurorae to an unrealistic extent and my main criticism of Experience the Aurora was the disturbingly fast movement. In terms of showing more of the display in a given time I can understand the speeding-up, but it isn't realistic.
And more of a quibble than a criticism is the music. The score is well-matched to the images, so while it enhances the film, it detracts from the realism. One of the things I find amazing about the northern lights is the silence of a sky that seems to be alive with movement and shifting patterns.
So is the film worth seeing? Yes, it is. I don't think it quite lives up to its stated aim, but if you have a chance to see the film at a planetarium or science center, I think you would enjoy it. It tells a good story, has some stunning photography and it does make a difference seeing a film specifically made to use the sky perspective of a 360-degree dome.
NOTE: I saw this film as part of a Hurtigruten astronomy tour on which I lectured.
There are images related to this article on my Pinterest boards "Seeing the Northern Lights" and "Tales of the Northern Lights".
Click here for the trailer for Experience the Aurora.