5 minutes with Melanie Windridge: plasma physicist and aurora enthusiast
A plasma physicist with a PhD in fusion energy, Melanie Windridge really does know her stuff when it comes to the northern lights. Combining a great passion and scientific knowledge, we couldn’t help but grab five minutes with Melanie to talk about her experiences and love for this spectacular natural phenomenon.
What’s so special about Northern Norway to you?
Norway is special to me for historical and personal reasons. One of the key historical figures in uncovering the scientific mechanism of the aurora was the Norwegian scientist, Kristian Birkeland. He made scientific expeditions up to Alta in Northern Norway to collect data that would allow him to form his theories on how the aurora is produced. In March 2014, when I was researching my book, Aurora, I visited Northern Norway with a Norwegian friend, Cecilie. We stayed in her aunt’s house, and from the sitting room window I could see across the fjord to the mountain where Birkeland made his research expeditions. It was wonderful to be so close. That week we drove around the very northernmost reaches of Norway, Cecilie showing me some aspects of the culture of the northern Norwegians and the Sami people – the fishing, dog-sledding, reindeer herding and snowmobiling. We met friends and family members along the way, and though I spoke only a few words of Norwegian I was welcomed with such friendliness and good hospitality that Northern Norway will always hold special memories for me.
The aurora borealis is complete magic. What’s one fact about the phenomenon that still blows your mind?
The aurora is a protective mechanism important for the survival of life on Earth. It is a way that the Earth gets rid of excess energy that hits us from the Sun.
As well as light, the Sun emits a stream of charged particles called the ‘solar wind’, which is mostly protons and electrons. When the solar wind reaches Earth it butts up against our magnetic field – our protective shield – and pumps it so full of energy that electrons caught up in the field around the back of the Earth are accelerated into our atmosphere, which glows with auroral light. If Earth didn’t have a magnetic field we wouldn’t see the aurora, but we probably wouldn’t have an atmosphere either, as it would have been stripped away by the solar wind, just like the atmosphere of Mars has been.
If you could give advice to anyone considering a northern lights adventure, what would your top tips be?
- Be patient and don’t expect too much. It’s a natural, unpredictable phenomenon that is worth the wait – and return journeys! I saw my best auroral display (so far!) on my fifth trip, and it just made me want to see more. But previous northern lights sightings were nonetheless good, and I was still so grateful to see them. Each time is different.
- Make sure there is more to your trip than just aurora watching, but prioritise. If seeing the aurora is your main reason for travelling, I would consider an out-of-town lodge which makes for more comfortable aurora watching. Many lodges have winter activities such as skiing or dog-sledding. Alternatively, if the northern lights would be an added bonus for a cultural trip, you could stay in a town or join a tour, making sure to get out of the town lights in the evening to look for the aurora.
- Maximise your chances and get local or specialist advice. Consider location (weather and light pollution) and timing (sky darkness and moon phases). It’s impossible to narrow down to a best place or best time for seeing the aurora. Everywhere is slightly different and has different weather, and we have no way of predicting what the Sun (and therefore the aurora) is going to do. If you’re interested in a particular location, find out when they have the best chance of clear weather – then keep your fingers crossed!
Melanie’s book Aurora: In Search of the Northern Lights is available now.