Chasing the Aurora

Map of Aurora As a part of my trip to Norway I was hoping to knock off one of my bucket list items – seeing the Northern Lights.  Despite living in the northern parts of the US for almost 30 years I never saw anything that came close to the typical Alaska pictures.  To me the northern lights, if I saw them at all, were at something that looked like light pollution on the horizon.  My dilemma is easily understood with an understanding of what they are.

The Aurora is caused by ejections from the sun hitting the magnetic fields around the earth.  At the poles these particles follow the magnetic lines to the upper atmosphere.  The gases in the upper atmosphere glow just as in a fluorescent blub.

The Aurora is a band circling the north (and south) Geomagnetic poles.  The Geomagnetic pole is in northern Canada, which displaces the aurora toward the US. As you can see Cleveland and Boston are far from this circle.

For this trip I was going to be in the prime Aurora zone.  While Svalbard was slightly north of the normal circle, the aurora should be visible in the southern sky. Coastal Norway was directly in the path of the Aurora.  The only thing we needed there was clear skies and an active sun.

Our first attempt was the night before the Mar 20 eclipse.  The trip took us to a dark site out of town (only a couple of kilometers. Longyearbyen is not Manhattan!) Since we had an early start the next day we wanted to get back to the hotel.  Folks at the hotel reported seeing something, but bed is what I wanted to see.

We were out again the next night fueled on adrenaline from the eclipse.  At first there was nothing.  The leaders gathered us inside around a fire while they killed time telling stories.  About 10 PM someone came in saying the lights were starting.  It was close to -30°C out at that point.  We looked and at first there was just a light pollution glow from the south.  Wait! There is nothing in that direction except ice and polar bears!  Soon pillars of light started shooting up over the hills.  Curtains so bright they cast shadows followed this. Finally the lights were filling the entire southern sky.

Unfortunately by this point we were all freezing.  I did not even try imaging due to the cold.  Retreating to the buses we saw the curtains overhead instead of on the distant horizon. Thus ended our best night.

Following the eclipse we decided to stay in Norway another week and take the Hurtigruten cruise along the coast. The Hurtigruten is the local transportation along the coast stopping at towns large and small.  It is a pleasant experience in its own right and March turned out to be a good time to do it (or we were lucky with the weather).

Once on the boat we were in prime Aurora territory. For three nights (dressed in our Svalbard gear) our friends and us were out looking at the Aurora.  In the mean time we re-crossed the Arctic Circle. While the Aurora was not as spectacular as in Svalbard and while my pictures are not National Geographic quality (These are time exposures on a moving boat), they will convey some idea of what we saw. The pictures below only hint at the colors. 

March 24

North of Trondheim
Aurora Mar 24 1 March 24 -2

March 25

North of Svolvær

March 25

March 26

North of Tromso

March 26 1
March 26 -5
March 26 -3
March 26 -4
March 26 -1 March 26 -6


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