1998 - John LeBaron

John LeBaron

University of Oulu

Reflections on the seasonal light of Oulu, 1998-1999

Accompanied by my wife, I was privileged to spend the 1998-1999 academic year at the University of Oulu. Outside of my work, my most memorable impressions stemmed from the dramatic shifts of Nordic light, almost on a daily basis. I wrote the observations below as I perceived them.

At September’s end in Oulu, the sun no longer rose high in the sky. It slanted up in the morning from the east moving in a southerly direction until it hung, still low at noontime, over the southern horizon, and eventually slanted downward in a northwesterly direction until it disappeared behind the horizon. The long morning shadows lasted for hours, giving way to a short “mid-day,” until the deepening evening shadows appeared in early afternoon. It is as though dawn and dusk had formed a conspiracy, shutting out the overhead light of daytime’s prime, expropriating the shadowless glare of high noon, imposing between them a shared coalition of softer, darker shades of nuanced, shadowed light.

As autumn progressed, the sunsets disappeared much earlier and faster, but if anything, they were even more brilliant. Even on clear evenings, low clouds typically stretched across the western horizon over the Gulf. For reasons that escaped me, the setting sun now set these clouds ablaze in a shocking fiery red. The height of this blaze typically lasted less than ten minutes, though the after-glow was more softly pleasant. It was almost as though a fast roaring fire had been kindled in a huge open hearth, the dry kindling stoking a furious short blaze, to be followed by the gentler radiance of slow burning logs. At its height the red was so deep that the overhead clouds and even those on the eastern horizon were also suffused with a much softer pink. The ground glowed reddish orange.

On rare winter occasions, the aurora borealis contemptuously rebuffed the black of night with a carnival of swirling, dancing color. One evening, we had our first pyrotechnic display of Northern Lights. Great white streaks of shimmering, swirling candy-like ribbons swept overhead across the whole sky. At one point, a particularly large, bright streak re-formed into a massive circle directly above us and exploded into pinkish hues before reconstituting itself back into its earlier ribbon-like form. These light streamers looked like glacier faces against a bejeweled black velvet background. If we had purchased tickets for such a show, it could not have been more spectacular.

A university colleague offered up some malarkey about the Borealan source code. He recounted a barely credible theory about solar winds interacting with atmospheric ions in the strong northerly polar magnetic pull. He said that the ions became electrically charged, and were therefore able to radiate their own illumination in the dark northern sky. But then he gave us the real scoop, and I now share it with you. Apparently, a great white fox runs nightly across the polar winter snowfields, brushing the surface with the swishing tip of his tail. This churns up huge clouds of snow that swirl upward into the air, piercing the dark sky in great, colorful billowing images of light. Now there, at last, was a story to believe!

We were lucky enough to see these sights for ourselves, and very sad to leave Finland.