Appearing more perfect in pixels than reality, the aurora emblematize our visual, screen-mediated age. A century ago, though, radio rules the electromagnetic waves.

The brightest aurora I’ve ever seen were through my screen. And by that, I don’t even mean the type that appear when you hold up your phone to the night sky for long enough so that the shimmering celestial curtains can imprint themselves upon the camera. I mean the secondhand aurora that pop up on social media feeds, in WhatsApp groups, and on Slack channels on the rare occasions that the celestial phenomenon stretches into more temperate latitudes.

Source: Richmond Times-Dispatch, 1914.

A few nights ago, from 10-13 May 2024, storms raged across Region 3664 of the surface of the sun. As one of the biggest groups of sunspots in recent years marched across the fiery orb, it hurled supercharged plasma and even embedded magnetic field lines towards Earth. These coronal mass ejections traveled 94 million miles before slamming into oxygen and nitrogen atoms in the Earth’s ionosphere. Such high-speed impacts excite these atoms, which release their boosted kinetic energy as light. Green wavelengths, which are emitted by revved-up oxygen atoms, are most common. Yet shades of amethyst and ruby saturated the photos of the aurora glowing over North America and Europe the other day. Some onlookers told me they had seen the rosy hues with their naked eyes, while others said their iPhones artificially warmed the northern lights’ appearance. Meanwhile in England, some aurora hunters thought they were headed towards the northern lights, only to realize they were setting course for a Premier Inn – a hotel chain adorned by purple lights.

While people were gazing up at the night sky, I was naively asleep in a tent in a thick forest in Oregon after having driven south during the largest geomagnetic storm in two decades. I had seen a message about its imminence before heading out, but dismissed it. Living in Seattle, I often receive notifications that the northern lights might be visible, but I generally tend to ignore them. Living under perennial cloud cover can do that to even the most starry-eyed stargazers.

So, when I received a series of messages the next morning from friends in California asking whether I’d seen the northern lights, I felt not only sad that I hadn’t, but embarrassed. How could an Arctic geographer miss a rare local visit of a polar phenomenon?

As photo after photo of the aurora slid into my messages, I found some consolation when people like my nonchalant Gen-Z students told me that the real thing was nothing like the pictures. “You couldn’t see a thing unless you looked at it with your phone,” they said in class, shaking their heads. “Pics or it didn’t happen” is a common refrain nowadays, but I was left wondering whether, despite the photos, it even did happen. My cousin in Portland said she saw the aurora, but then clarified, “Only through my phone.”

On the Seattle subreddit, someone commented that the aurora were the type of celestial phenomenon that looks better in photos, while the solar eclipse is the opposite in that no photos can do it justice. This I knew to be true: I had glimpsed the total eclipse in a cloudless sky in Dallas last month, and no representation can capture the incredible awe of two spheres lining up perfectly in the sky, turning day to night.

A rather underwhelming photo of overwhelming totality.

Appearing more vivid and more perfect in pixels than in reality, the aurora emblematize our visual, screen-mediated age. Even though the real deal can be stunning, Arctic tourists sometimes express disappointment when the aurora isn’t quite as colorful as the iPhone 15 Pro or Instagram makes it seem. (See, for example, this rather histrionic travel article, “Why Seeing the Northern Lights was the Most Disappointing Travel Experience of My Life“.)

The aurora borealis and australis as seen with nighttime lights imagery collected by the NASA Suomi/VIIRS satellite, 9-13 May 2024. Visualization made in NASA Worldview.

When radio ruled the electromagnetic waves

Visual culture theorist Nicholas Mirzoeff contends that “seeing is a great deal more than believing these days.” There was a time not too long ago, however, when this wasn’t true. In the early twentieth century, hearing arguably took precedence over seeing. A vibrant auditory culture blossomed as record players and radios proliferated. In 1909, during an expedition led by American explorer Frederick Cook that docked in the tiny Greenlandic village of Etah – once the world’s northernmost settlement at at 78°18 N – “a phonograph sent music, classical and otherwise, into the Arctic air from the cabins.”

Etah received many visits by explorers because the settlement was a jumping-off point for expeditions to the North Pole. At one point in 1909, all four of the village’s families joined American explorer, Dr. Frederick Cook, on his attempt to reach the North Pole. Other Inuit, it was remarked by one British explorer, admired the four Inughuit (Polar Inuit) families who eked out a living in Etah, “so far north in their country“.

The village’s name might have even struck a chord with the American public, so frequently did it appear in newspapers and on the radio waves. In 1923, an expedition led by Robert MacMillan that planned to be frozen into the ice for ten months broadcasted an update over the radio thanks to “some strange phenomenon in radio transmission.” While the aurora generally block the propagation of radio waves, by some fluke, an amateur radio operator in Prince Rupert, British Columbia, 5,000 miles away, received the signal the expedition sent out from Etah. This electromagnetic tie created the only link between the expedition and the outside world. The Washington, D.C. based Evening Star newspaper reported, “This apparent leak in the usually impregnable atmospheric conditions of the polar regions, where, for months on end, the aurora borealis hangs like a curtain, will enable Dr. MacMillan to send more frequent messages in the near future, giving details of his explorations and the results of the party’s scientific surveys.” Whereas now people post photographs of the aurora, a century ago, the same celestial curtains put up obstacles to attempts to share auditory updates with the world.

Broadcasters took advantage of these gaps in the northern lights to transmit a diversity of sounds from the Arctic. On August 13, 1925, one newspaper reported that an Inughuit quartet in Etah performed a musical program, which was broadcast on a 40-meter wavelength from a radio station aboard the 200-ton steamship Peary. The vessel had docked with “three open-cockpit, amphibian biplanes to search for new land in the Arctic Ocean and the latest short-wave radio equipment to communicate with headquarters in Washington”.

Peary was part of the 1925 MacMillan Arctic expedition to use airplanes to explore and survey the North Pole – and to test the use of radio to communicate their findings. Onboard the expedition was Robert Byrd, Donald Macmillan, and Eugene McDonald, the founder of the Zenith Radio Corporation. It’s almost as if a journey into Low Earth orbit today were to take aboard the founder of Instagram. The broadcast of the Inughuit quartet was received by a Zenith-owned radio station in a Chicago suburb, which immediately rebroadcasted the signal to the entire country given its surprising clarity.

The village of Etah has since been abandoned. But 98 light years away from earth, the radio broadcast of the four Inughuit men singing “The Song of Snow Bunting,” “Song of the Raven” and “Song of the Pox” is still flowing out into the universe, alongside the endless streams of protons and electrons fired out by a riotous sun. While the photos and videos people post are often fleeting – bursts of pixels that disappear after 24 hours – radio waves have a far more cosmic longevity. Snapshots of the aurora may one day be forgotten or buried under decades of search results. But the broadcasts of the Etah quartet and MacMillan’s expedition, though dimmed, will still carry on into what Carl Sagan called “the “great enveloping cosmic dark.”

A photo taken by polar explorer Robert MacMillan in Etah in 1925. Source: Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum.

Further listening

[1] An album of 55 songs of traditional Greenlandic music, recorded between 1905 and 1987.

[2] A 1938 recording of “Greenland Whale Fishery.” This sea song originated in the West Indies, of all places, sometime in the late eighteenth century as foreign whalers were plundering the seas around Greenland.

Categories: Travel & Photo

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