Northern Light: The Celestial Wonders of Greenland

February 5, 2019 Acacia Johnson

Don’t forget to look up.

For the Arctic adventurer, there is no dream more elusive, more enshrouded in legend, than glimpsing the northern lights. Since time immemorial, the aurora borealis have captured the imaginations of cultures around the world, weaving into folklore, superstition and story. To catch a sight of the lights is to witness something so surreal, so beautiful and otherworldly, that it seems to border on the supernatural.

Quark Expeditions Passengers admire the northern lights from the deck of the ship. Photo by Acacia Johnson

Quark Expeditions passengers on an Arctic Express: Greenland’s Northern Lights expedition admire the northern lights from the deck of the ship.  

A good viewing, however, requires a fortuitous combination of factors including latitude, solar activity, time of year, and distance from light pollution. The world’s brightest aurora doesn’t necessarily occur in the very highest latitudes, but rather in an oval about 20 degrees around the magnetic North Pole. This means that with clear skies, darkness, patience, preparation, and a little luck, some of the world’s best northern lights can be seen in Greenland.

Our expedition to Greenland began with a brief workshop on northern lights photography aboard Quark Expeditions’ Ocean Nova. As we set sail under the golden glow of an Arctic sunset, we gathered with our photography guide, cameras in hand, to learn the settings we would need to capture the experience, should it arise. With a little preparedness, explained our guide, we should be ready to harness the magic of any aurora we should witness – to capture not only what we may see, but what we might feel when we do.

Sunset near the mouth of Scoresbysund, East Greenland.

Sunset near the mouth of Scoresbysund, East Greenland.

A land governed by the intensity of celestial phenomena, Greenland appeared equal parts earth, sea, and sky. As we explored the coastline, we were enthralled daily by the light of a glimmering moon, a radiant sun, and the long, painterly hues of twilight. The clouds that came and went brought depth, texture and pattern to the wide blue sky, signaling clues about the weather that we carefully heeded as we navigated the remote, mountainous coast.

“If it ended right now,” someone whispered, as we passed a glacier bathed in the rosy glow of dusk, “This would be enough. All that we’ve seen. The color. The light.”

Long exposure photo of iceberg during evening hours in Greenland. Photo by Acacia Johnson

Spending a night at anchor provides wonderful opportunities for long-exposure photography of landscape, ice, and night sky alike – like this scene in Scoresbysund, East Greenland.

It was then, as we were drifting to sleep after a long and joyous day of hiking, that we first saw them. The gentle voice of our expedition leader eased us from our dreams, confirming what we’d all been hoping for: the northern lights were visible, at last, above our ship.

On the top deck of the vessel, faint patterns of green wavered and danced across the sky. I thought of the Inuit legends of the northern lights, describing a group of spirits playing soccer with a walrus skull. Inuit children, from Greenland to Canada to Alaska, are warned to never whistle at the northern lights, or the spirits will come to take their head as a ball instead. It fit well, I thought, with the ancient maritime superstition that forbids whistling onboard ships. Legends both, that gathered us here in hushed silence, listening to the lapping of waves, the quiet gasps of wonder. 

A Quark Expeditions passenger photographs the aurora from the top deck of the ship. Photo by Acacia Johnson

A Quark Expeditions passenger aboard an Arctic Express: Greenland’s Northern Lights expedition photographs the aurora from the top deck of the ship.

Indeed, you could imagine it like a game: these rushes of light and color, energy and motion, softly ribboning from one end of the sky to the next. Dancing, soaring clean arcs overhead, to land on the other side, above the mountains, in a splash of stars and nautical twilight. One would expect noise, cataclysm. The silence, instead, imbued a profound sense of awe.

A brilliant arc of aurora near Danmark Island, East Greenland.Photo: Acacia Johnson

A brilliant arc of aurora near Danmark Island, East Greenland.

In the hours that passed, the lights came and went, faded and intensified, like something alive and entirely untamable. We would turn, from the focused watch of a faint, ghostly display, to discover an explosion of light and color blooming behind us. What’s more, our camera sensors could capture even brighter aurora than what our eyes could perceive, creating images that captured the feeling of the experience.  The whispers gave way to exclamations; I found myself laughing uncontrollably, simultaneously shocked and moved.

It is no wonder, I thought, that people should think this was magic. 

“I can’t put it into words,” remarked a fellow passenger. “I’m an agnostic person, usually, but this is almost spiritual. This could make you believe in anything.”

An ocean of light and color fills the sky near Danmark Island, East Greenland. Photo: Acacia Johnson

An ocean of light and color fills the sky near Danmark Island, East Greenland.

A group photo with the Northern Lights in the background. Photo by Acacia Johnson

Quark Expeditions passengers enjoy the aurora together aboard an Arctic Express: Greenland’s Northern Lights expedition.

Quark passenger looks into the night sky as the auroras take over. Photo: Acacia Johnson

A Quark Expeditions passenger aboard an Arctic Express: Greenland’s Northern Lights expedition experiences the silent majesty of the aurora.

I was overcome by a deep sense of gratitude. Many of the most memorable arctic experiences, wondrous in their apparent spontaneity, arise from countless hours of tireless observation. Someone had to be awake, watching all the while, on behalf of all of us. In this case, it was the vigilance of the bridge crew and expedition team that had let us all see the lights.

When the next morning the sun rose over Dream Bay – aptly named – and a thick curtain of gold spread from purple mountains, all seemed born anew. Where those curtains of green had danced in the sky above us, now the eye found how the land mimicked this very phenomenon: curtains of snow, ribbons of ice, dancing lines of stone and mineral in every color of the rainbow.

Northern Light. There’s much more to it, I thought, than aurora alone.  

With our without the aurora, Greenland had us by the hearts. The land was alive in a silent way, orbiting endlessly under the magnitude of that wide, unknowable sky. But when fortune smiled upon us, and the lights appeared, we were ready for them.   

Plan your expedition trip to Greenland for a rare chance to experience Earth’s most celestial spectacle for yourself. Browse itineraries today.

 

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About the Author

Acacia Johnson

Acacia Johnson is a photographer, artist and writer from Alaska, focused on human relationships to the earth's Polar Regions. A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, Acacia has made over 55 expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctica, both as a guide for Quark Expeditions and through her personal photographic projects. Her long-term work with the Inuit of Baffin Island, begun on a Fulbright grant in 2014, has inspired a lasting passion for the inhabited regions of the North. Today, her work is exhibited internationally, held in the collections of the Anchorage Museum and the Smithsonian Museum of American History, and has been featured by many publications, including National Geographic.

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