Wicked weather and northern lights in Norway

Posted by Karri Ferron
on Monday, November 11, 2013

An auroral curtain appeared near the Big Dipper on Sunday night above the MS Midnatsol. The sight allowed some of our group to capture their first photos of the northern lights. // photo by Corrie Stock
Between spouts of crazy weather during the night, the passengers aboard the MS Midnatsol traveling along the coast of Norway, some of us with the group hosted by Astronomy magazine's travel partner, MWT Associates, had the chance to seem some beautiful displays of northern lights.

Friday night saw a combination of music and lights. After some sporadic activity above us, the ship made her way into Tromsø, the "capital" of Arctic Norway. A large group of us headed to the Arctic Cathedral for a midnight concert by a trio of three talented local musicians. We heard a variety of classical music interspersed with some traditional Norwegian folk tunes. The setting and songs produced a magical experience.

We experienced a rare glimpse of blue skies away from the ship while on an excursion on the island of Hinnøya. // photo by Karri Ferron
As we pulled away from the city, some went up to observe between the clouds while others headed to bed in preparation for an early arrival at our next port, Harstad. They saw some northern lights, but not a ton of activity.

Saturday night was an interesting one. During dinner, the ship started rocking. The next thing we knew, the cruise director was on the loud speaker asking people to be extremely careful on the ship as we were experiencing gale force winds (Beaufort scale of 8). And she wasn't kidding; it was nearly impossible to walk without bumping into walls and dancing with various poles throughout the ship. Many were queasy, some enjoyed the roller coaster, and very few souls were willing to venture up to the outside observing deck despite the crystal-clear skies.

In the Norwegian Sea, a globe to the east of Hestmannen Island marked our crossing out of the Arctic Circle. // photo by Karri Ferron
Things calmed as the MS Midnatsol finally arrived at port in Bodø at 2 a.m., and some then ventured outside. They received a treat at 4 a.m. with a solid 30-minute show of periods of green dancing lights.

Last night was a true treat for a wider audience. Almost as soon as we were away from the lights of the port of Rørvik, the light show began despite some lingering clouds. We had some quiet arcs and a few striking striation peaks. Some 10 minutes later, the clouds came, the wind picked up, and we had a hail/snow mix streaking above us (we were sheltered by a wall). And then just as fast as the small squall came, we had clear skies again and more quiet arcs.

After one more squall with winds that refused to calm, we experienced a steady curtain for about 30 minutes. Pictures weren't perfect because of the motion of the ship, but the show made up for any uneasy stomachs. This was the first time the observing deck was truly filled with passengers, so it seems everyone finally saw the phenomenon that was the northern lights and went to bed happy. (One photo from our group is shown; more will come in a future blog once we have a reliable Internet connection and a little bit more bandwidth.)

After a few hours on land, we welcomed our ship, the MS Midnatsol, into port in Sortland. // photo by Karri Ferron
Between nights on deck, the days have been full of Norwegian culture and sights. On Saturday, we had the opportunity for an extended excursion on land while the ship continued south. She dropped us off in Harstad, a town of about 19,000 on the northeastern part of the large island of Hinnøya, along the Vågsfjorden, and we ventured out on buses. We began at the historic Trondenes Church just north of the town, where we had a service and watched our ship leaving port. After some time at the museum next door, which is a premier cultural heritage site for the late Middle Ages, we rode the bus all along the island, seeing its amazing views of the mountains, fjords, and agricultural areas. The bus then drove onto a ferry to cross the Gullesfjord, and we were treated with cakes and cheese common to the Norwegian diet. As a self-proclaimed cheese connoisseur, I can tell you it was delicious. Finally, we rejoined the MS Midnatsol in Sortland, but not before watching her pass beneath us as we crossed a bridge with perfect timing thanks to our bus driver.

Our second to last day aboard the MS Midnatsol involved a stop in Trondheim and a visit to Nidaros Cathedral, a stunning Norwegian landmark and one of northern Europe's greatest Gothic memorials. // photo by Karri Ferron
On Sunday, we officially left the Arctic, as we crossed south of latitude 66°33'. A globe on the Vikingen island we passed marked this moment for us, and the ship's crew offered a ceremonious spoonful of cod-liver oil to the passengers, washed down with wine. Admittedly, the cod-liver oil was quite awful, but it was worth the souvenir spoon we received for participating.

Later in the day, I lectured to our MWT group and anyone else interested on the constantly evolving exoplanet zoo. As not everyone aboard the MS Midnatsol is here for any other astronomy-related reason than the aurora, it was exciting to share the latest on this popular field, including updates that Kepler scientists just announced.

After a few more short stops to pick up passengers and cargo, we arrived in Trondheim early this morning. Another bus tour allowed us to explore the third-largest city in Norway and the capital of the area during the Viking Age until 1217. It's home to the Nidaros Cathedral, built from 1070 on, a Gothic work of art with Romanesque roots that's an important Christian pilgrimage to this day. And despite the capital city being Oslo, it's still the location where kings held their coronations (and now their consecrations). It was spectacular to see.

Tonight we'll try one more time for another aurora sighting, and then we disembark tomorrow in Bergen. After an afternoon and evening exploring that city, we head home with memories of the Arctic and its fascinating lights dancing in our heads. Stay tuned for more photos.

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