A peek at aurorae from northern Norway

Posted by Karri Ferron
on Friday, November 08, 2013

The northern lights provided a bit of a dance early on during our first night aboard the MS Midnatsol. // photo by Adrian Velazquez
The aurora-hunting group I'm traveling with thanks to Astronomy magazine's tour partner, MWT Associates, had a bit of success on our first night looking for the northern lights aboard the MS Midnatsol off the shores of far northern Norway. We've been battling lots of clouds but received a break a few hours before dinner after our stop in ‪Vardø‬. I unfortunately missed the first spectacle, as I had foolishly gone inside to warm up, but my travel companions graciously shared pictures and descriptions of the experience.

I thought my luck had changed when the captain announced during the middle of dessert an aurora sighting. I wasn't going to miss one again, so I ran up four flights of stairs and burst on deck (no coat) — only to discover it was a false alarm according to those already done with their meal. But there were small breaks in the clouds again, so I hurried to my room, bundled up, and headed back into the Arctic air. For the next few hours, we saw two small spurts of auroral activity, but after dancing for a few seconds, each fizzled. After that, clouds dominated the remainder of the evening, and the crowd gradually dispersed. Clouds again on and off today, but we'll hope for clearing again tonight.

Not everyone in our tour group witnessed this early bit of an aurora, so hopefully we'll have more luck in the next week. // photo by Adrian Velazquez
In the meantime, the group and I have been taking in the sights, smells, snow, and lack of Sun in northern Norway. We arrived in Kirkenes on Wednesday, ready to take in the small town that was home to more than a thousand alarms and 320 air attacks during World War II. But sunset comes around 1:45 p.m. in this part of the world, so exploration had to come mostly in the dark. And let me tell you, my internal clock really likes to mess with me when it's pitch black at 4 p.m.

On Thursday morning, we boarded the MS Midnatsol, having again only a little time to explore the ship before the Sun set (and no stars to see yet). We had a little less than an hour at port in Vardø, the easternmost town in Norway, so we headed to the Vardøhus Fortress, admittedly a little more fascinated with our first time exploring a fortification in pitch blackness than the limited things that were lit up for us to read in the 30 minutes we had.

This monument in Hammerfest (with the MS Midnatsol in the background) marks the northernmost point of the Struve Geodetic Arc, a chain of survey triangulations stretching 10 countries that yielded the first accurate measurement of a meridian. // photo by Karri Ferron
The MS Midnatsol is a cargo ship and a mode of transportation for locals as it is a cruise ship, so we continued to make lots of 15-minute stops at various ports throughout the evening and into the morning.

Then this morning (Friday) at 9 a.m., I presented a lecture to our group and many others on the ship about how our Sun works and its impact on Earth, particularly space weather and how it produces aurorae.

After that, we made our first extended stop to check out Hammerfest, known as northernmost city in the world. A bunch of us took a bus tour of the city, stopping to see the UNESCO World Heritage Site dedicated to the northernmost point of the Struve Geodetic Arc (a chain of survey triangulations stretching 10 countries that yielded the first accurate measurement of a meridian) and witnessing all the rebuilding necessary after the city was burned to the ground by German troops during World War II. It was a particularly beautiful day for this time of year according to the tour guide, and it was amazing to hear from a local how she feels living under the midnight Sun during the summer and 24 hours of night during the winter (although the city does experience a "dawn-like sky" a few hours most days — not all darkness). Turns out, she loves it.

Now it's back to hunting for northern lights. Keep your fingers crossed for us.

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