While the northern lights glide and wave across the skies – hidden by clouds, or suddenly, after hours of us looking and seeing nothing, silently appearing for a short while we’re asleep – while they act out their slow secretive part, the aurora circus on the ground is in full swing. Advertising for ‘Northern Lights Holidays – The Trip of a Lifetime’, for ‘Your Once in a Lifetime Experience’, or for the ‘Northern Lights Tour in the Magical Landscape of Lapland’ is spread wide across the internet and newspapers, and, unlike the aurora, is visible at all times and all places.

For those of us who live in the part of the world where the northern lights are often visible, this marketing is disturbing and unreal. On the one hand, we agree they are an amazing sight and we never tire of wanting to see them ourselves. On the other hand, the ‘spirit’ of the lights, if you can call it that, is unpredictability, mysteriousness, a natural force with none of the limitations of the world as we know it. And yet, we try to incorporate it into our timescales, set expectations on it, want it to perform, be predictable, and be presented to the world in after dinner anecdotes and time lapse photography. It’s a mismatch of reality and expectation, and I wonder if it does anyone any good, other than the tour operators.

It’s a dilemma for us. We want people to see them, and to be excited to do so, but we also want them to understand the reality – not only so that they aren’t too disappointed if they don’t see them, but also so that they can appreciate the real value of a force of nature which refuses to do anything to order. Our wish to communicate this is constantly undermined by companies appearing to promise sightings of the northern lights, while in the small print protecting themselves from any formal complaint if they aren’t seen.

Unfortunately, people read what they want to read, see what they want to see. What they see are fabulous images of the northern lights, a range of colours filling the sky like a spectacular firework display. If they were lucky enough to see the lights themselves, they would be unlikely to look anything like that.

(Above: Not seeing the northern lights on the Kiruna All Sky Camera)

Apart from the obvious – that the lights aren’t always dramatic and colourful, and a photographer is only going to show the time they were really dramatic – the northern lights are an example of where, contrary to common belief, the camera really does lie. Even if you can trust a photographer not to have ‘touched up’ or altered the photo – and currently there are assertions that locally published photos have not been edited ‘in any way’ – it is not at all the case that what the camera sees is what we see. The human eye picks up the instantaneous show of light, whereas any camera operating in that low light level will pick up several seconds of light, making the image brighter and more dramatic. And it must be hard to resist extending the exposure time to make that even more dramatic. This is the case even with ‘real time’ images on the internet, where a camera is conveying the image and picking up a lot more aurora than we actually see.

We’ve even expressed sympathy, sometimes, to guests, that the aurora haven’t been visible, and then they have shown us photographs of what they have seen. Some guests have told us that they managed to see the aurora because someone near them showed them the image visible on their camera – and they were really happy about that.

The photographs can be impressive, but maybe they’re a bit of a distraction. The real beauty of the lights, in my opinion, is the way they move across the sky and appear and disappear. When you’ve really seen them, the feeling you’re left with is not of a spectacular display, but of contact with a presence from beyond this world. It’s uplifting, but hard to describe.

Now the ultimate ‘Northern Lights Tour’ is being advertised. As a part of Virgin’s people’s rocket project (‘Spaceport Sweden’, Kiruna) a plane will be taking people on a ‘Northern Lights Flight’, viewing the aurora from a high wide angle and avoiding any risk of cloud over spoiling the view. You can take this flight on 13th January, 3rd February, or 3rd March next year. You avoid the disappointment of clouds getting in the way, but it doesn’t mean the northern lights will actually appear during the hour’s flight. At a price of 7375 SEK this seems a bit of a risk.

But this tour operator isn’t taking a chance and hiding behind the small print. The flights will only happen, they say, ‘if the northern lights prognosis from the Institute of Space Physics is positive’. So they intend to use what science is available, good start. Even then, they point out that ‘there is always a chance the northern lights will not be visible,’ adding that ‘this is also part of the thrill of the experience!’

It seems that not even Richard Branson can make the northern lights appear when he wants them to. For this we must be eternally grateful.