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Aurora – Fire in the Sky

Synopsis

A ghostly flickering illuminates the polar night – a mysterious, coloured display in the night sky that has intrigued people from time immemorial. The aurora is without doubt the most striking natural phenomenon in the polar regions of our planet.

The documentary ‘Aurora – Fire in the Sky’ presents the phenomenon of the polar lights from various aspects. The film crew for this international production shot in Norway, Greenland, Canada, Alaska and New Zealand.

The film investigates the causes of the aurora while highlighting the scientific background and scientific aspects. In addition, the inhabitants of the polar regions give their say, as they have their own historically passed down explanations regarding this fascinating natural spectacle.

For the Sami people in northern Scandinavia, the Inuit in Greenland and many North American Indian tribes, the aurora is a familiar sight. All of these indigenous people know traditional myths and legends that are entwined with the polar lights.

“When I was a child, our grandparents told of how the northern lights were the spirits of our ancestors”, remembers Boas Jonathansen. The sprightly 84-year old lives in Tiniteqilaaq in eastern Greenland, a village of 100 residents, where he worked as a teacher for a long time. “These spirits are playing a game of ball whereby the ‘ball’ is a walrus skull. The movements of the players over and back across the sky result in the northern lights. As a teacher, I passed on these stories to my students”, says Jonathansen.

Legends such as the “Spirits playing ball in the sky” that have been passed down come to life in this aurora documentary – by means of specially designed, sophisticated computer graphics.

In Central Europe, where the aurora seldom occurs, the mysterious glowing on the horizon was long interpreted as a harbinger of war, plague and famine. Contemporary images from the 16th century impressively show the terrifying nature of the unfamiliar celestial phenomenon for people of that time.

But even today in modern times, the phenomenon of the “fire in the sky” leaves a lasting impression. Whoever has witnessed the phenomenon of the northern lights, never forgets the experience. This is also true for the film crew, who experienced one night of particularly intensive polar lights while filming in Greenland.

“At times it seemed like the entire sky was lighting up and sending out rays” remembers the producer Ivo Filatsch. “There seemed to be no end to it – no sooner had one light display disappeared before another part of the sky started to glow. The entire spectacle lasted several hours.”

Cameraman Udo Maurer got fascinating shots of the aurora above a freezing fjord. “With your free eye, at first you sometimes don’t see any more than a weakly glowing fleck”, describes the experienced film-maker. “However, due to the special optics that are extremely sensitive to light, the camera actually provides images that are quite sharp and rich in contrast.”

An absolute high point at the beginning of the filming work in Greenland was the moment when the camera team – supported by the local interpreter and guide Julius Nielsen – took up position on an iceberg in order to film from there. “That was really cool – it was the first time I stood on a real iceberg”, smiles cameraman Udo Maurer.

Producer Ivo Filatsch adds: “The only problem was that the iceberg was being carried slowly but constantly by the current in the fjord and the camera position was therefore changing all the time. We therefore gave it up again quite soon.”

At least the weather was kind to the film team: At the start, the sky was grey on grey and completely covered. However, after a few days, the clouds parted and the sun bathed the fascinating unspoilt landscape of eastern Greenland in a warm light.

The sun is also the source of the polar lights – as it emits a constant flow of electrically-charged particles. This “solar wind” is deflected by the Earth’s magnetic field in the polar regions. The particles infiltrate the Earth’s atmosphere, where they are accelerated by the magnetic field, collide with oxygen and nitrogen particles and thus cause the atmosphere to become illuminated in places – similar to in a fluorescent tube.

Numerous large research institutions study the polar lights – the film team visited aurora researchers in the Norwegian city of Tromsø and in Fairbanks, Alaska. Besides fascination, the scientists definitely also have sound reasons for seeking to gain a more precise understanding of the natural phenomenon. The polar lights are a kind of warning signal – an indicator of how active our sun is.

Even though our home star looks quiet and constant when viewed from the Earth, the reality is different: an inferno is blazing on the sun. Occasionally when there are violent eruptions, large quantities of solar material are thrown out into space – and the calm solar wind changes into a fierce storm.

The OECD study “Future Global Shocks – Geomagnetic Storms”, which was published at the start of 2011, warns about the dangers of this “space weather” for modern industrial societies: Disruptions of the Earth’s magnetic field due to sun eruptions can paralyse power networks, cause satellites to fail and interrupt radio communication.

On 13 March 1989, a geomagnetic storm following a solar eruption caused a complete blackout in the Canadian province of Québec. A transformer was no longer able to withstand the electrical surges in the network that were caused by magnetic interferences. Nine million people were left without electricity for six hours.

In view of such possible effects, the aurora is the most harmless aspect of space weather – and also the most beautiful.

Produced by Terra Mater Factual Studios