I am beginning this blog post while sitting in our micro-Yaris rental car just after midnight as March 1st turns to March 2nd. Duke is out retrieving the all sky cameras (with fish-eye lenses) that we set up in clearings down off the road in a small forest of lacy-branched trees. The aurora has been extraordinary this evening, with glorious, horizon to horizon east-west arches, slowly twisting and braiding before raying out over much of the sky. Click the image above to see a larger version! More than 400 images have been recorded this night. It will take 120 consecutive all-sky images to make a 1-minute time lapse for the planetarium dome.
Writing now after some sleep: Duke had an “all sky” sort of feeling about last night, and wow was he right about that! I deeply appreciate his combination of technical skill and intuition as a photographer. The image at right was at a peak of activity that caused the lights to ripple, roll, twist, and shimmer for several minutes. I was so fortunate to be looking up at this storm just when a large fireball streaked through the sky near Jupiter. I cried out with delight, hoping not to alarm Duke who was still working down in the forest. I recorded the time in hopes that somehow one of the all sky images will have caught the long streak of the fireball. We’ll see as the photo processing continues! And you know, when the northern lights are dancing all over the sky, the display is so awesome to behold that it just makes me want to pray. Understanding the science of how the aurora occurs only adds to the awe and wonder of this extraordinary natural phenomenon. We hope you are getting curious! Please be sure to click on any image to enlarge it!
The auroral images in this post were made from a place only about 15 km northward from Tromso – off the road to a township called Skulsfjord. This location had been recommended by a very friendly and knowledgeable fellow named Odd (pronounced “Ohdt”) who is our host at the family apartment where we are currently staying in Tromso. He told us many interesting stories, including one about the dramatic bombing and sinking of the German warship Tirpitz in Tromso during WWII. His mother was witness to that day. Odd has lived in Norway all of his life and loves it here. His ancestors are fishermen and he seems to have their instincts about the winds and weather of the region. He says that things are very different this winter – warmer with more rain and less snow.
One of the main reasons that the northern lights can be so good near Tromso is that the city is located beneath what is called the northern auroral oval of our planet. There is an auroral oval at both poles that can be observed from space. In general these ovals are brighter and wider when the Sun’s activity is high. In that case, folks at lower latitudes might see the lights too!
Planets that have a global magnetic field (for example: Earth, Jupiter, and Saturn) all have auroral ovals over both poles. On Earth, the northern lights are called Aurora Borealis. Southern lights (near the South Pole) are called Aurora Australis. These diagrams peer down on the polar regions of Earth. Look for the outlines of the long Scandanavian countries (Norway, Sweden, and Finland). [HINT: Consider the green ring (auroral oval) as a clock face with noon at the top. Then look at about 1 o’clock to find the outlines of the far north of Norway beneath the green color. This is where Tromso is located.]
So what causes these extraordinary “halos” of our planet? Stay tuned to learn more! Meanwhile, please enjoy Duke’s favorite non-all-sky image of the night. He says he wants to hang this one on the wall in his office. Be sure to click to enlarge. By the way, you can see more of Duke’s photographic artistry at his website.
Our teammate Will (who teaches high school physics at the Atlanta International School) arrived in Tromso today. After loading his bags (which filled our micro-rental car to capacity!), the Tremendous Tromso Trio took off at dusk to do some scouting along the road to a town called Sommeroy, located on the west coast of Norway. During one of our stops to explore, Will made a great image of some outrageous mountain scenery that we hope to photograph with sunset and auroral light illuminating it (see below). Tonight (2-3 Mar) was a bust for northern lights though. Clouds were thick in all directions after nightfall and we retreated early to bed (except me to complete this post!).
The northern lights do occur 24-7, but they are MUCH higher up in the atmosphere than the clouds. Clear skies are very, very important to our mission, yet the weather forecasts are not looking particularly promising during these next days. Even so, we will venture forth because Mother Nature is often quite difficult to predict among the mountains and fyords!