Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 59.djvu/33

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23
THE AURORA AUSTRALIS.

In the 'Belgica' we had been sailing among icebergs and along the ice-sheeted coast of newly discovered lands for nearly two months before we saw the first aurora. During most of this time we were above the polar circle, where the sun, during the hours of midnight and midsummer, sank but a few degrees behind the icy crust of the earth, leaving a twilight so brilliant that no stars were visible. The glancing rays of the nocturnal sun, which were thrown from peak to peak and from the mirror-like slopes into the heavens, made the night a scene of dazzling splendor, too bright to permit the display of the auroral light.

In the first days of March we found ourselves surrounded by a hopeless sea of ice from whose ensnaring influence we were unable to extricate ourselves. The long winter and the polar night, which no man had as yet experienced, now came over us rapidly. The sun daily sank lower on the sky and swept less of the horizon. The rose color of the snow, which made the summer nights charming, now changed into lilac. The open spaces of water between the restless ice-fields were being hidden lender a weight of rapidly forming new ice, and the winds were moaning in prophetic despair of the coming blackness. We knew only too well that we were in the relentless grasp of a new monster, the Antarctic Ice King, and in his grasp we must remain until the thaw of another summer should release us. In this spirit of despondency and with considerable anxiety we searched the skies nightly for the heavenly glow of the aurora australis, which we hoped might relieve the awful monotony and soul-despairing darkness of the coming winter.

While skirting the edge of the pack-ice late in February we saw a star, the first since leaving the Cape Horn waters, and this little speck, though a sign of the long, gloomy night and of the polar winter, was hailed as a messenger from a new world. During the days which followed we watched with joy the increasing number of stars from night to night, but there was so much storm and the atmosphere was so thoroughly charged by humidity that a clear sky was rarely observed.

On the evening of March 12, 1898, we saw the first distinctive aurora. A faint arc was seen the night previous, but the light was so feeble that many of us doubted that the phenomenon was auroral. The few days which preceded were clear, sharp and cold. We had been so constantly showered with snow and sleet, so persistently held in banks of fog and so often driven to the verge of desperation by the violent storms which ever swept the pack-edge that this calm and silence was, indeed, a treat to us. On the evening of the 14th the sun sank out of a cloudless sky below the crackling, quivering ice of the sea. The temperature was - 15 C. A light wind, which came out of the south, pierced the skin like needles. We were many hundred miles from the