Chasing the Northern Lights – Part II – Guest Post

This is the second (and final) part of the guest post by my friend Sownak Roy from http://doesnotxsist.blogspot.in/. You can read the first part of the post here.

I woke up to a new day, well, actually a Polar Night. Being inside the Arctic Circle in December means that the dawn is at 10 a.m. and it remains like that till 3 p.m. The sun is not visible, and it is not complete darkness as many of us tend to believe. The skies were clearer today, which meant that the temperature would be getting subzero even during the day.

After a breakfast of coffee and soupy noodles and a hot bath, I was ready with my 5 layers of clothing and the synthetic fur hat. The outside door handle had ice on the inside, which is a common sign that the temperatures were far below zero during the night.

First stop was the Arctic Cathedral/ Ishavskatedralen. Unfortunately it was closed due to Christmas preparations, but I was happy taking a few shots around the Church, for myself as well as for the other tourists. The walk back over the Tromsø Bridge was challenging. The ice and the slope of the bridge was quite a challenge to handle.

Back in the island of Tromsøya, lunch was at the northernmost Burger King. It wasn’t anything special, but they do have good free Wi-Fi. The next interesting building was the public library/bibliotek. It was good to be inside; when the temperatures are sub-zero, there is a limit to how long you can stay outside even if you are wearing the best clothes.

I was back to the apartment to get my camera gear as well as add a few more clothing on me. The aurora forecast was good, and I hoped with all my heart that the skies are clear.

As suggested by my host, I headed to the south of the island, where the beach area of Folkeparken provides a nice place to view the Lights as it is completely dark. It was a long walk in the cold, but I reached the place and was happy to find a wooden picnic table; happy because it means I would not have to sit on the frozen ground. It was 6 p.m. already. The best time to catch the Lights is between 6 p.m. – 12 a.m. when the sky is the darkest in this part of the World.

The two hours wait in the cold was worth it. Though I had some whiskey to keep me warm, nothing was more welcome than the first sight of a green band across the sky. It was not noticeable much at first, and looked like a faint cloud coloured by the light pollution, but once the realization set in, I was the happiest man on the earth, or at least in the whole of Folkeparken.

The Aurora Borealis is caused by the collision of solar wind and magnetospheric charged particles with the high altitude atmosphere. The solar wind which reached today to earth’s atmosphere actually left the sun about 3 days ago. These winds consist of free ions, which get attracted by earth’s magnetic field, and collide with the atmospheric gases, mostly oxygen and nitrogen and alter their atoms. But these altered atoms are unstable and then they regain the original atomic mass, they release the energy through light and sound. The sound does not reach us (sometimes they do) as it gets heavily diffused by the atmosphere, but the light reaches us as light travels much faster than sound and so diffusion is less. And that is how we see the Northern Lights. The green light is because of higher oxygen atoms at lower atmosphere.

There aren’t words to describe the feeling of watching the Aurora dancing in the sky with your own eyes. But one thing is for sure, you will undoubtedly have the feeling that your own life and problems are so small, that we as human beings are so small, in this huge astronomical environment. The photos here should speak for themselves.

Dance of the green lights
Dance of the green lights
Northern Lights against the ink blue sky
Northern Lights against the ink blue sky
The Aurora Borealis
The Aurora Borealis
The green light is because of higher oxygen atoms at lower atmosphere
The green light is because of higher oxygen atoms at lower atmosphere
Northern Lights
Northern Lights
The sky painted green - Northern LIghts
The sky painted green – Northern LIghts
Northern Lights
Northern Lights
Northern Lights
Northern Lights

At the end of it, the feeling was so content, so peaceful, so satisfying. I felt that I was the luckiest person; lucky to watch the most extravagant natural activity, to be able to feel the enormity of the Universe (or Multiverse) and to witness this phenomenon which has happened even before any life existed on earth, and will keep on happening even after all life is extinct from earth.

Photography Tips:

  • Tripod is a must.
  • Highest ISO setting, use RAW mode so that noise can be adjusted later.
  • Wide angle lens (you would not want to miss the environment).
  • Lowest aperture (you want the images to be sharp).
  • Shutter Time should be 20-25 seconds (Can be less if you have very bright lights).
  • Remote shutter control is optional, though it gives you more control.
  • No light from anywhere near (do not check your mobile).

Basically it is same as shooting fireworks or lightning.

Dressing Tips:

  • Head: Furry hat (a woolen hat which covers ears should do).
  • Upper body: full sleeve Cotswool undershirt, full sleeve shirt, woolen jumper, air-jacket. (the outer jacket should be as fluffy as possible, the more air, the more warm; woolen jumper is a must, acrylics don’t work)
  • Lower body: Cotswool long john, thickest jeans, Quechua ski trousers. (Any good quality ski trousers will work; this keeps you safe from the snow).
  • Feet: Cotton socks, woolen socks, 200g thinsulate snow boots (first layer cotton keeps the feet from smelling; you may add spikes, but it is difficult to walk with spikes when there is no ice).

Have you ever seen the Northern Lights phenomenon? Leave a comment and let me know.

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Chasing the Northern Lights – Part I – Guestpost

There is a benefit of having a bunch of well travelled friends. You can badger them with requests for guest posts. This post is a result of my badgering a well-travelled, well-so-on-and-so-forth friend who is currently based in the cold corners of London. Sownak (whose travel journal can be accessed here http://doesnotxsist.blogspot.in/) When you can’t be everywhere, you have friends who can write a guest post for you. This is a two-part post about Sownak’s experiences visiting the Northern Lights. Do read and leave a comment.

The day I landed in Oslo, I made a promise to myself, that I will see the Aurora Borealis popularly known as the Northern Lights, whatever it might cost to me. And when I boarded the early morning flight to Tromsø, I was happy that I was about to fulfill my promise.

Tromsø is situated in northern Norway, very much inside the Arctic Circle, which makes it a popular destination to catch the Lights. Due to its location near the sea as well as the presence of the Gulf Stream, it is warmer than other places on the same latitude, and is hence more popular. The best time to catch the Lights is between October and March, as during these times, the nights are completely dark. December to February is more suited due to clearer skies.

The flight from Oslo landed in Tromsø at about 10 am. It was like twilight outside and it was going to stay so till about 3 pm, and then it would get darker. I was booked via airbnb and my host was kind enough to pick me up from the airport. After a quick freshening up, I was dressed in 5 layers again, and was ready to brave the nearing zero temperatures.

The aurora forecast was good (check http://www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast/ ), but the weather seemed to be a little gloomy. I was booked for the Aurora tour at about 6 pm, and I had a lot of time to kill till then. There are a few interesting places to visit in the town.

The temperature was nearing zero which means there was lot of ice on the roads, and since this is no city, no one bothered to clear the road of the ice. Even with my big snow boots lined with 200g thinsulate insulation, I was feeling the chill and I had to take care not to step on the ice. It was almost like walking in a mud-ridden street in India, where the only difference was that I was trying to avoid the ice patches instead of the muddy patches. It was time for some hot Gløgg – a warm, spicy drink similar to German Glühwein.

The architecture in Tromsø is quite interesting, from the Arctic Cathedral, to the Public Library, it was evident that the architects tried to break the gloominess of the winter through their creations. And in my opinion, they did not fail.

Tromso City at night
Tromso City at night

Soon it was time for chasing the Aurora. We boarded the mini-van, and our guide took us to a really dark part of the Island. The only light was the light from our cameras and the moon. The best location to view the Lights was from some place which is really dark, so as to reduce the possible light pollution. We waited at the location, partly illuminated by passing cars, but the Aurora was playing hide and seek. The skies were not clear either, and as soon as we got a faint view of the Lights, the sky was covered by clouds.

Star Gazing
Star Gazing
Waiting at the Beach
Waiting at the Beach
Road less travelled
Road less travelled

We moved around to a different place, on some kind of beach. We had to be careful about the slippery ice, and our second phase of wait started there. It wasn’t too bad to wait in a place far from civilization, sitting under the skies, on a beach illuminated by the moon, and sipping a cup of hot chocolate. The faint Lights were visible again, and some of us caught it on camera, but it was not very satisfying.

Moonlight
Moonlight
Sownak in front of the Arctic cathedral
Sownak in front of the Arctic cathedral
Faint View of the Aurora
Faint View of the Aurora
Arctic Cathedral at night
Arctic Cathedral at night

By 12 am we all were cold enough and accepted that catching the Aurora needs a lot of luck. By then the sky was overcast and light snow started. We packed all our camera gear and wrapped up for the night. By the time we reached Tromsø, an inch of snow has covered the roads, and hoping that tomorrow will be a better day (or night), I wrapped myself under the double quilt.

Looking at the pictures, it wasn’t a bad day after all.

Is Northern Lights on your bucket list? Or have you struck it off recently? Do leave a comment.