Norway and the Aurora

February 28, 2012 — Leave a comment

I returned last night from a trip to Norway to see the aurora. I posted previously about my stint as a Trip Scholar for the excursion on a Hurtigruten vessel, organised by the Oxford Alumni Office. It was a fantastic trip. As well as the Northern Lights we got to see some incredibly beautiful parts of the world, still frozen in Arctic Winter and just getting ready to begin to melt toward Summer and eventually the Midnight Sun. (You can see my Flickr photos here)

We were travelling on the MS Trollfjord and were out at sea for much of the time. To see the stars and aurora you had to don all your warmest gear and head out onto the deck where the wind chill brought temperatures down to -20°C at times.

On our first night we had a chance viewing of the aurora for about ten minutes, which was great but a bit too brief. Many people didn’t catch them at all and the following day there was some disappointment from those who didn’t even realise they had missed the chance.

One the second day of our trip I had an alert that a coronal mass ejection has left the Sun earlier that day and was heading toward the Earth. It was due to hit the Earth’s magnetic field during our final evening on the boat and thus we had an increased chance of seeing the aurora as we sailed into Tromsø to following day. I reported this alert to the group and explained some of the physics of what was going on. The news totally excited everyone and it lead to a day or so of people asking every question imaginable about the Sun, the Earth and the aurora. It was great fun!

As we came into Tromsø the following night the sky was quiet and often cloudy. The ship’s aurora prediction had remained unchanged at a score of one (out of ten). I had explained that when it comes to predicting aurorae, nothing is very concrete. Even our solar flare from earlier in the trip was no guarantee. The disappointment was obvious, but the determination was enormous. A lot of people simply sat out on the freezing deck from sunset and waited. I waited with them.

At around 7:45pm we pulled into a port north of Tromsø (the ship stopped in many places all the time). The town’s lights made it difficult to see much but someone spotted a faint glimmer and we all lined up to inspect it. It intensified and grew green: the Northern Lights had arrived! Over the course of ten minutes or so it became brighter and structures became apparent. It formed an arc over our heads and soon the bottom of the aurora – the curtain – became clearly defined and vertical striations of green regularly punctuated its shape. Everyone was very excited. As the ship pulled away from the town, it turned and we moved alongside the lights for some time. They change rapidly yet often imperceptibly, and pulse in and out of existence at times.

A little while after heading out of the port it was much darker and the lights were better positioned relative to the lights on the ship. Some cloud was appearing, but the aurora were brighter and at times the deck burst into spontaneous applause. It was quite magical. About 45 minutes after they had appeared, the lights were hidden by cloud. Having been on deck for around two hours it was time to go inside, eat and most of all: defrost.

After toasting the lights, and the trip in general, we decided to chance on more trip outside. This time it didn’t take long for the cloud to move away and as we came into Tromsø we were treated to an even better, brighter display. Swirls and arcs and curtains of green light. At times I could even make out the red top above the greens, meaning that Nitrogen at even higher places in our atmosphere was being excited and glowing. We tried to take many photos but they really don’t do justice to what we could make out with our eyes.

I went onto flickr just now and looked for photos taken around Tromsø on either of the two nights we saw the lights. You can see one at the top of this post, taken by Flickr user nitin-p from Tromsø on the first night we saw the lights. The photo looks very similar to what we saw the first night from the deck. The second photo (below) is more like what we saw on the final night as we drew into Tromsø. Brighter, with more structure. This photo is from Flickr user momentaryawe and was also taken from Tromsø.

There were many people on board with very fancy-looking cameras, tripods and other photography kit. Some were even in our Alumni tour group. I gave my email address to many people who have promised to send their best pictures so I can make a gallery here to share around. It would be great to share some photos that were taken from the ship itself.

I was very happy with my Northern Lights trip, and I think the people in our group seemed to get a lot out of it. Not only did they see the lights, but the solar flare warning, and subsequent aurora, left many of them with a better understanding of how such things can be seen, modelled and understood to further our knowledge about the Sun and our relationship to it. Several people expressed the fact that they had no idea how big and powerful the Sun was before the trip and that seeing the lights after being told what makes them happen, enhanced their experience and made the lights better somehow. I was really pleased with that comment and I’m very happy to have done to trip. I would recommend the Northern Lights to anyone, and will be trying to see them again myself one day.

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