Post 9: Oasis from Hyperspace – FINAL

I’m using the playful “jumping to hyperspace” image from the first Star Wars movie (above) to help readers appreciate what it looked like from our perspective during the post-midnight blizzard on route E10 between Abisko National Park and Kiruna, Sweden on the evening of 10-11 March.   We were trekking intrepidly for predicted gaps in the cloud cover that might offer even just a hint of auroral glow.

If long hair is any indication, I’m the Wookiee on the right, however I was actually in the Hans Solo driver’s seat for the outbound portion of this epic excursion. Duke was in the Wookiee position. Okay at least the height (if not the hair) is consistent.

There are a couple of important differences between the Star Wars depiction and our predicament.  Instead of stars stretching into parallel lines for a few seconds, the streaks of snow were oppressively persistent and eventually began to affect my perception of what it meant to stay on the road. To help you grok the visual experience consider how it would be to sustain for an hour or so the peak phase of the hyperspace jump simulated in this 10-second video. NOTE: This visualization may be especially valuable for Atlanta-based friends whose city necessarily shuts down at the first sign of a snow flurry.

Onrushing truckTo boot, large tractor trailer trucks often blew by us in the opposite direction, sonically shuddering the car and engulfing us in slush or a blast of swirling snow that blinded us for the interminable seconds it took our single wiper to clear the windshield.  Imagine what you see in the image at left in terms of space on the road, then add blizzard and darkness.

Lest ye be tempted to think I am exaggerating the intensity of the conditions we encountered, please consider the fate of this fallen truck we saw alongside the road on our aurora-hunting route (E10).   [Click to enlarge any of the smaller images.]

Fallen Tractor Trailer on E10 Fallen Tractor Trailer 2

We were slowed to a crawl, barely able to see beyond the hood of our car.  We all agreed that the orange plastic poles marking the side of the road (see one in the image above) were spaced about half as frequently as they needed to be to support safe driving in this hyper-snowy, hyper-windy space.

 

The Abisko Oasis Part 1 – Early Evening on March 10th

imageI began to write this post from the winter wonderland of Abisko National Park in Sweden at a time prior to the post-midnight perils I describe above.  As I started to write, it was after 7 pm – well past dark. The wind was howling….gale force at least.  We had already driven through a snow storm and challenging road conditions as we crossed over from Norway into Sweden.  We were taking a break in the Park’s Visitor Center (Abisko Turistation) to re-check weather and our cameras for moisture on the lenses.

As the map below indicates, our location at Abisko is several hundred kilometers from Tromsø.  We had been driving since 11:30 am in the morning (Monday 10 March) – which was a bit later start than planned because we’d been up late the previous night on our quixotic quest on E8 near the Finnish border (see Post 8).  Given the weather we’d been facing, it was certainly difficult to imagine clearer skies on down the road toward Kiruna, but clear patches were still showing up on the satellite weather maps, so onward we would go!

Earthzine logoNOTE:  Also on this day (March 10th) my dear colleague Elise Osenga from the Aspen Global Change Institute published this thoughtful brief about our expedition for Earthzine.

image A Note on Lapland while the Map is at Hand:  All of the territory depicted above is within the Arctic Circle, meaning higher in latitude than 66.5° North.  A notable geographic curiosity, hidden beneath the right side of the time & mileage rectangle, is a tri-point called Treriksröset (Three-Country Cairn) where Norway, Sweden, and Finland meet.  Sami FlagNotice also how Norway arcs over the north of Sweden and Finland and shares its easternmost border with Russia. All of this (and more) is part of a vast cultural region called Sápmi inhabited by the indigenous Sámi people. Norway has the largest Sámi population and officially recognizes the Sámi flag (left). [NOTE: The circle is a motif derived from a sun/moon symbol that appears on Sámi shaman drums.] We are traveling into the northernmost province of Sweden called Lapland. Finland also has a northern province by this name.  However these provinces are tiny subsets of Sápmi. Sámi people are as diverse and geographically distributed as Native Americans in North America, and they do not use the terms “Lapp” or “Laplander” to describe themselves.

 

The “Polar Zoo” – A Walkable Wonderland of Arctic Wildlife!

On the way to Abisko, we’d made a 1.5-hour stop to explore the “Polar Zoo” near Bardu, Norway (location marked on map above). I thought to throw up a slide show and leave it at that,  but soon realized this would not do justice to the occasion. This northernmost animal park in the world was a big highlight of our expedition’s many adventures. It was a walkable wonderland of arctic wildlife that invited stirring connections with the sentience of some of our most exotic fellow inhabitants of Earth.

Polar Park Sign Cherilynn - Lynx - cropped

Be sure to click to enlarge and admire the gorgeous details of the lynx above — huge “snowshoe” paws, black fur-tufted ears, pure white furred chin and breast, bright golden eyes, and so on).  In the wild, the stealthy lynx is renowned for seeing without being seen.  My meditation teacher encourages a practice of walking in nature with the sense of being seen. Hah!  By the lynx!….whose very name derives from old words meaning Light (apparently because of the cat’s glowing eyes and ability to see in the dark. Amen!).

Will with zoom - close cropThe happy snappy camera I carried had a pretty good zoom: it made the above photo of the lynx, for example.  But Will’s zoom lens….Whoa!  While useless for making auroral photos, it was the perfect tool for wildlife photography!  Both of us were blessed to make many remarkable images that seem to see into the very eyes of the marvelous animals we photographed.

 

Close Encounter with a “Bone-head Boss” of the Second Kind

I got so absorbed by the lynx, bear, and wolves that I missed seeing the muskox that Duke and Will visited before the Park’s closing time. Click the image below to peer into the eyes of this literally bone-headed beast. _MG_8767According to an award-winning, student-generated website about Arctic animals the muskox headdress is called “boss”.  Quoting from the site: “The boss is four inches of horn and three inches of bone that lies directly over the brain with no other skull in between… It is estimated that when muskox bulls hit head-on it’s equivalent to a car driving into a concrete wall at 17 mph (27 km/hr)”.  Okay…that’s about twice as fast as we could drive our micro-Yaris in the hyperspace blizzard. Sounds like we would have lost a head-on confrontation with the “boss”.  But of course we were more concerned about tractor trailers.

 

Learning About Fox Tails/Tales of the Northern Lights

The Arctic foxes were another favorite subject of our photos at the Park. Our images below are among the few that show off its beautiful and mythically rich tail.

Cherilynn - Walking Fox - zoom & crop 2Cherilynn - Closed Eye Fox v.2

According to a lovely blog post I found about myths and legends of the aurora in different cultures, Finnish folklore says the Arctic fox runs far in the north, touching the mountains with its tail and making sparks that fly off into the sky. So the Finnish name for the northern lights is revontulet, which means ‘fox fire’.  Cecilie (the owner of our Gulenvegen apartment who was introduced in Post 8) had shown us a draft of her new children’s book about the aurora which derives from this Finnish Fox tale/tail.

 

Wolves and a Wolverine

There was an ornery wolverine, and a playful pack of wolves.  The sign posted said wolverines have a very powerful bite, many times stronger than a wolf.  In the montage below, I could not resist throwing in another luxurious look at the lynx.  All images were made by Will or me.  Duke was protecting his lens for anticipated aurora later on. Thank goodness for zoom lenses!  Click in to enlarge and enjoy greater details!

  Cherilynn - wolf croppedWill - wolverine open mouth Cherilynn - lynx over shoulder _MG_8683

 

Bjørn the Bear – an Ursa MAJOR Dude!

The Arctic Wildlife Park was also home to a remarkably accessible bear (Bjørn) who absorbed the bulk of our attention during our brief visit.  We have so many great photos of this guy from diverse perspectives, that it is hard to choose what to present here. Cherilynn - making photo of BjornCherilynn - Bjorn behind fence_MG_8643

I paid a price for entering the zone between the two fences for a closer encounter (see the photo at right above and also below for the larger context).  The closeness was thrilling.Cherilynn - bear in larger perspective  But on the way back over the little fence I collapsed down into the snow up to my waist and could not escape on my own without leaving my Keen boots behind.  Fortunately Duke came to help.  Will was within 15 feet of us, down the hill, but was so pleasantly engrossed in making monster zoom photos of Bjørn that he did not awaken to this micro-drama unfolding.  I’ll spare you the details of my humbling extrication.

Later on we learned from Swedish soldiers that their Arctic training addresses this sort of hazard.  It is possible to drop in up to your shoulders and rapidly freeze into the snow thus becoming unable to move…gulp!  On a lighter note, by some miracle, the nifty, over-shoe ice grippers we had been issued by the Park to help us walk up and down the slippery paths stayed on my boots through my extrication process! CleatsforWildlifePark_thumb.jpgIce grippers on shoes  Not so for Duke’s ice grippers. There were none large enough to fit his size 16 boot, so the bands rapidly snapped off as he walked up the first path!

Ursa Major with Big DipperI’ve been holding out on you in regards to photos of Bjørn. This bear is definitely an Ursa MAJOR dude (astro-nerd alert!). The first two photos below were made with my happy snappy zoom, which could fit between holes of the fence. The third and fourth photo were made with Will’s large telephoto. The last image bares tooth and claw, reminding you that Bjørn is no teddy bear!

Cherilynn - Bjorn close-up Cherilynn - Bjorn walking Will - Bjorn - looking askance Will-Bjorn chewing - cropped

 

What Bjorn “Nose”!

Look again into Bjørn’s eyes in the first and third photos of him above.  Is there any question about his sentience?  None if you ask me.  There is evidence that bears are Bjorn Nose_MG_8595sensitive to color and see as well as humans do. But a bears’ ability to detect scents is crazy good because they have an area of nasal mucous membrane in their head that is 100 times larger than a human’s. Click to enlarge the image and find the droplet on Bjørn’s amazing nose. Evidently there really is such a thing as bear snot (documented during the final 15 seconds of this home video of a bear in the backyard). However Bjørn was certainly not averse to putting his snout in the snow, so the droplet might have come from that instead.

Bloodhound - wide shotUnknown to me at the time, I was destined to have an impressive “nose job” done on me during my travels back to the US, not by a bear, but by a blood-hound who communicated to his handler about the forgotten fruit in my pack as I stood by the Newark baggage carrousel (for luggage that didn’t arrive from Oslo).  I was startled to feel something jump up on my back.  I turned rapidly to see a AppleOrangenon-threatening, domestic-looking doggie, wagging his tail.  His uniformed handler asked me, “Do you have any fruit in your pack?”.  Well no…but uh wait!  I’d forgotten to eat the Rema 1000 apple and orange I’d stashed for the long trip back. They were in my backpack’s closed top pocket, high up on my back. Wow, what a nose!

Yet that hound’s remarkable capacity is nothing compared to a bear in the wild.  According to the American Bear Association, bears have a sense of smell that is 7 times greater than a bloodhound!  Bjørn inhabits a universe of scents and aromas from farther distances and longer times ago than is imaginable to human beings. Fortunately he is well fed and uninterested in the power bars in our pockets that his nose knows are there.

 

Missing the (not Red-Nosed) Reindeer

Now if you can possibly believe it, we all missed visiting the reindeer at the Polar Wildlife Park, which for me had been one of the biggest motivations for our visit. When I now see photos of a big-racked reindeer on the Park’s webpage, it makes me ill that we may have missed them.  The reindeer in the Sámi sky seen from the Northern Lights Highway had been awesome, but how could we possibly come to this part of our planet and not set eyes on a REAL reindeer?!?!  Aaaaargh!!

Walking out of the Park - higher contrast

Yes…but as we walked out of the Park our soul bellies were plenty full of the close encounters with Bjørn, the lynx, the wolves, and the tails/tales of the Arctic fox. The image above shows Duke and Will walking over the bridge that heads back to the parking lot.  Note the odd greenish color of the creek water in this region…as well as the water droplets on my lens…sigh.

 

Arctic Wildlife in the Stars

Now I will respectfully conflate Western and Sámi cultural interpretations of the stars to allow three of the Arctic animals to be in the sky all at once. Well if you count the Finnish fire fox creating northern lights, then it’s a combination of three cultures and four animals in play.  Anyway, please give this nerdly interlude a chance, but also be free to skip to the next bold header if learning about star patterns and motions is of less interest to you.

AllSkyConstellationswithLynx_thumb.pngIn the all sky image (left) I’ve painstakingly marked the Sámi reindeer constellation (Sarvvis), the faint zigzag of Lynx, and the Big Bear (Ursa Major) – a constellation that includes the familiar Big Dipper making up the bear’s hind quarters and tail. The legs and pointy head of the Big Bear are very faint. To see them for real requires dark skies and keen vision (such as the real lynx enjoys).  To make sense of this image you have to imagine the starry animals in a circular “chase” around the North Star.  Due to Earth’s rotation, the star patterns appear to “run” around Polaris in a counterclockwise sense as time progresses.

So in the image, the reindeer is “running” in the lead (with W-shaped antlers on his head). The lynx is “chasing” the reindeer (with her head toward the hind legs of the reindeer and her tail back toward the legs of the bear). The pointy-nosed bear is “charging” the lynx.  Naturally, it takes them 24 hours to go all the way around one time. In Arctic winter you can pretty well detect the whole 24-hour rotation, but of course in Arctic summer there are no visible stars in the land of the midnight sun.

Big dipper bear

NOTE: The bear appears to be upside down in the all sky image above, with his nose to the left, legs pointing upward, and his tail out to the right. Try to imagine how this changes as he appears to revolve around Polaris over the course of the night due to Earth’s rotation. Thus in addition to its service as a pointer to the North Star, Big dipper as calendar - hand drawing 2 - cropped bottom linethe “big dipper” asterism has found use as a clock  and a calendar.  Knowledgeable stargazers can use the dipper’s orientation as it revolves around the Pole Star to tell the time of night at a particular time of the year, or the time of year at a particular time of night (see calendar at right).  Of course this doesn’t work below a latitude of 25° South (say in Sydney, AUSTRALIA) where the “dipper” is no longer visible in its entirety.

 

***And now we return you (from enchanting encounters with Arctic wildlife on the Earth and in the sky) to our previously scheduled saga of the hyperspace blizzard. ***

 

The Abisko Oasis Part 2 – Post-Midnight Return from Hyperspace

The Abisko Turistation (Visitor Center) had a nice lodge, restaurant, and outdoor equipment store associated with it.  There were abundant opportunities for tours including snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and dog sledding. Abisko Lounge by FireNone of this was particularly affordable for us, neither in time nor NOK.  At first our presence was a bit furtive since we weren’t formal guests of the lodge, but eventually we relaxed into the awareness that even in our damp and disheveled state, with no intention of buying or renting anything, we were still very welcome to use the bathrooms, lounges, free Internet, and a re-filling station for water bottles and thermoses.  Such generous provisions!  In all honesty I can say that as we left the Turistation the first time in the early evening of March 10th to chase aurora I’d sensed that we were destined to take further advantage of this oasis.   Ya-ya ..to be sure.Jump to HyperspaceWe finally made it back to the oasis of the Abisko Turistation at about 2:30 am (March 11th), having driven through blizzard and white-out conditions akin to the extended hyperspace transition described at the outset of this post.  My co-adventuring brothers literally applauded our safe arrival at a space in the parking lot, and I’m sure we all found a quiet wave of gratitude in our own ways. Whew!  Duke proposed that we stretch out on the couches in the Abisko lounges for a couple of hours, until dawn when we would get an early start back to Tromsø with more light and hopefully less hyperspace-like snow and wind for the journey.

So I found a couch in a room called the library.  It took a little while to wind down to a state where I could fall sleep, Breathe You Are Alivebut conscious breath is such a powerful way to calm the body.  In fact, I had also been using deep breathing to reduce physical and mental tension while driving.  White-knuckled grips on the steering wheel are useless compared to a more relaxed readiness for the demands of wintry conditions. Thank goodness for yoga!  It really helped to create a thread of peace inside what might otherwise have been a completely nerve-wracking experience.

 

Gotta Love those Studs!

Between Abisko oasis stops 1 and 2, we had been cruising for hours back and forth on the E10 southeast of the Turistation (see map below), frequently zipping up and down narrow, and sometimes steep, side roads in both directions so Duke and Will could explore potential foregrounds and surroundings for the cameras.  Yes, I really loved those studs (on our snow tires, I mean), at least under these conditions. Swedish medical researchers accuse studded snow tires of posing a respiratory health risk in cities.  A Finnish tire Bond ice spikes in actionmaker recently announced a potential solution – retractable studs!  This link to a hyper-hip, 30-second video shows how they work. It’s so James Bond-y (scene from Die Another Day).  Fortunately, none of the side roads on E10 were quite this steep.

 

Nibbling on the Napping Aurora

Parts of our Swedish sky cleared at times to reveal the 1st quarter moonlight which set the mountainous snowscape aglow.  [Wow!  Someday I hope (like my jazz friend Virginia) to see this place during the season of the midnight sun!]   Alas, there were no northern lights in the sky. Again and again we were foiled by bursts of wind and spurts of sleet that made it senseless to expose the cameras. Abisko to Kiruna MAP 

Sleeping WillWe paused to nibble and nap for awhile at a pull-off with a path that accessed the southern shoreline of the long and thin Lake Torneträsk (along which the E10 runs in this region – see map above).  At first Will braved the elements to try firing up his camping stove.  And you know, I might even have deigned to consume some re-hydrated stroganoff-like stuff were it actually warm.  However, in spite of Will’s courage, his stove and the foreign-fitting fuel can he’d purchased didn’t mate well together. He said he managed to make some “Luke”-warm cocoa – perhaps a fitting “Skywalker-esque” prelude to the hyperspace blizzard to come.

imageI snarfed a banana together with the super fuel of a high-protein Isagenix chocolate-peanut crunch bar. This joined the spirit of Duke’s staple combo of bananas and granola bars.  Yummy, ya-ya sure.  And I do mean it, though it’s not exactly fresh cod with mango sauce, you understand.  Yes, remember that fresh cod from Post 8?  Well it was still sitting in the refrigerator back at our little red cabin in Tromsø, and we were still trusting that it would be good upon our return.

After a couple of hours of fitful dozing in the car we awakened to a promising green glow to the north intermixed with clouds and moon glow.  There was still intermittent precipitation, and we debated whether to haul out Will’s camera for a shot. It wouldn’t be a great one, but at least we’d have something to show for our 800+ km round-trip. But setting up a camera to shoot aurora is NOT like whipping out your happy-snappy.

 

Why Making an Auroral Photo is Not a Happy Snappy

Auroral photography is no happy-snappy cell phone shot on a beach vacation. It takes time to deploy and level the tripod, affix and focus the No Happy Snappy on the Beachcamera on a bright star, connect the remote control, and confirm that the settings (f-stop, exposure, ISO) match the  dynamic, low light conditions. It is dark, likely cold, possibly windy, and sometimes slippery. Find Will (below) at his camera on an Arctic “beach” juggling all of these challenges.

_LND2659Below is another photo from the Spåkanes shoreline (see Post 7) for which the camera wasn’t leveled properly. Correcting the leveling in post processing would cut off the top of the dramatic auroral feature, and this “flaw” explains why I didn’t choose the image for the original post on the Spåkanes outing. Just for fun, I gave this beautiful image (below) a small tilt to level the mountains.  Funny how this makes it appear more like a happy snappy…NOT!  Click to enlarge the image and enjoy the perfection of its “flaw”.  Spakanes Shaft - tiltedTruth is, that glorious shaft of light would likely have disappeared and not been recorded at all had the photographer (who was scrambling on slippery rocks early in our deployment) taken the time to level the camera first.  In fact this “flawed” image documents the only minute or so of more intense activity we experienced that night.  Sooo…it takes enormous effort to get everything right, even when Earth and space weather are providing for you.

The red and white glow on the distant horizon of the shoreline (beneath the shaft of green light)  is another little light house such as we discovered in Post 6 (Fallen Camera).  Will managed to make it all the way out there before the gale-force winds shut us down.  No fallen photographers or cameras this night.

 

The Forces that Drove Us into the Hyperspace Blizzard

norwegian sweater-blackBy the way, the Spåkanes shoreline marked the last time we’d photographed any northern lights at all (see Post 7).  That was four whole days prior to this night near Sweden’s Lake Torneträsk!!   What an auroral drought!!  No wonder then…our veritable act of desperation… with the clock running out on our expedition….to travel hundreds more kilometers away from Tromsø in hopes of finding a couple of hours of gaps in the clouds coincident with an eruption of northern lights and great scenery. Quixotic?  Foolish?  Optimistic?  Ya-Ya-Ya.  That’s how it is. What else should we do, go shopping for Norwegian sweaters? The Arctic Wildlife Park was worth the journey, right?

 

We also knew from the Spåkanes photos that a hint of auroral green intermixed with clouds and moonlight, even if too faint to be detected by the unaided human eye, can contribute to spectacular, long-exposure photographs (see below – click to enlarge).  It was this memory that really made me want us to try for a shot while there was detectable auroral glow overhead there by Lake Torneträsk.

_MG_8141 _MG_8107

But the spits and spats of precipitation were the big problem. No matter how good a photographic target is, if the lens has fog, frost, or big water drops on it the image is compromised.  During the time it would take to set up a camera by Lake Torneträsk, water on the lens was a certainty.

So we didn’t go for the shot and agreed to zip farther southward again toward Kiruna where skies might still be more clear (though mountain scenery less dramatic).  Perhaps that coronal hole was lined up better now than it was yesterday… Perhaps that glimmer of green we saw marked the start of a great burst of auroral light… Perhaps this would be the last opportunity for auroral photos on the entire expedition….Perhaps… Yada-Yada-Ya….Perhaps this is how we wound up in the post-midnight, hyperspace blizzard.

Those gaps in the cloud cover, previously noted on the satellite maps, had evidently come and gone for the evening. There were no more clear skies, only thicker clouds and a building snowstorm.  Who knew what the fox fire of the aurora was doing now. Our focus necessarily changed to navigating the blizzard conditions in which we became immersed.

Jump to Hyperspace

 

My Soul Scarf

I felt so grateful for the Abisko oasis, especially when we arrived there safely that second time at about 2:30 am – back in from the hyperspace blizzard.  I cannot speak entirely for my teammates now, as we all took care of ourselves in different ways.  In my case, after some gentle yogic breathing, I settled into a peaceful, albeit short-lived, Carolyn Hoedl Soul Scarvesslumber on a couch, finding some comfort with the soft “pillow” of my red Mountain Hardware down jacket and the soothing “eye cover” of my chenille “soul scarf” (handmade by master weaver Carolyn Hoedl). Carolyn is the mother of a dear song sister back in Atlanta. The blue arrow in the image above points to my “rainbow” soul scarf, which has now traveled with me on two northern lights expeditions, including our journey to Yellowknife, CANADA last year.  Maybe I should now call it my “aurora” soul scarf.

Cherilynn sleepingIf you click to look more closely at Will’s stealthy image of me collapsed on a couch at the Abisko Turistation, you can see my beloved scarf in action as an eye cover, and also a hint of what happens with moisture on a camera lens (at left).

 

How Good Can the Abisko Aurora Be?

Abisko Aurora Video Screen CaptureHow ironic that our blizzard adventure occurred in a place billed as the driest and best in Sweden for seeing the aurora.  As compensation for our inability to bring you more aurora photos, here is a link to a short and lovely time-lapse video created by photographers resident at Abisko.

We are noticing that folks who record amazing auroral photographs in this part of the world live here. They do not come for two-week madcap expeditions.  They sit patiently and observe what comes day to day, and they are ready to go when the Earth and space weather are right.  There is no need for desperate acts of chasing, and you can sit down and have fresh cod dinners when the Earth and space weather are marginal. Ya-Ya-Ya…I’ll let the cod story go soon.  Maybe a few more rounds of yogic breathing will do it (*grin*).

Truth is… I wouldn’t trade these life-long, bucket-list memories and epic adventures with my impassioned science education comrades for any fish dinner!

 

A Future Sabbatical for Duke and his Family?

MarshaJames20140318_000255_thumb.jpgDuke sometimes wondered aloud about how he could make it work to spend extended time here. I think a visiting educator/technical specialist program between the Tromsø and Clark planetariums would be just the thing!  Duke, his partner Marsha (who made all of our lodging arrangements and did all of Duke’s packing and flight arrangements), and their 2.5 year old son, (I call him “super boy” James), are all blond-haired and blue eyed, with known ancestral connections to this part of the world.  Jus’ sayin’….I think it’s a no brainer for them to do a sabbatical here in Sámi land.

 

Will Will Make it to the World Famous Ice Hotel?

Will processing images in back seat - compressed It is also noteworthy that in a couple of nights, our teammate Will (shown here processing photos in the back of our micro-Yaris) is booked to sleep in the world-famous Ice Hotel located about 20 km east of Kiruna in a small village called Jukkasjärvi (labeled on the previous map above). Starting at 6:15 am on the morning of March 12th – uhm – tomorrow, he is scheduled to re-do travel from Tromsø to the Abisko-Kiruna-Jukkasjärvi region by bus and train.  He says that for the privilege of a single room for one night in the Ice Hotel he would be expending more money than he has spent on lodging in a decade of adventure travel.  It certainly would cost Will several hundred dollars for that special night, and he has surely earned it.  It seems he generally economizes using his uncanny ability to sleep in cars.  I think he even chose to do this at Abisko while Duke and I used couches.

Northern-Light-SuiteClick on the image at left to see an example of what accommodations at the Ice Hotel can be like. The artful complex is re-created each winter season.  By this time we all deserved a night in this luxurious space, complete with access to a sauna and simulated lights dancing over our heads.  Ya-Ya…some cool sips of Akvavit…and…Oh!  Back to reality…

Cherilynnsleeping.png

 

Heading Back to Tromsø – Trying to Anyway

At about 5:30 am on the morning of March 11th Duke woke me up from my short winter’s  nap (~2.5-hours) on the Abisko couch.  I guzzled an Isagenix shake, went to the bathroom, filled my water bottle, and joined the guys at the car to begin our long trek back to the little red cabin whose refrigerator had (maybe) “cooled our cod” without us last night in Tromsø.

In addition to getting Will back to begin his solo adventures the next day, we had also scheduled a follow-up meeting with Anne Bruvold (the Tromsø planetarium manager introduced in Post 8), for 2pm that day.  So we reckoned that this early departure time would, in principle, give us an adequate margin.

Closed Gate - just north of AbiskoIMG_8861However, just a few kilometers northward of Abisko we were stopped by a flashing red light and gate indicating that the E10 northward was closed due to snow drifts and avalanche danger. We waited awhile with a small truck in front of us.

Duke was at the wheel now, so while we waited I got out in the brisk wind and snowy landscape to walk and do some yoga.  Sun breaths seemed appropriate to support the light of the new day beginning to emerge in the east …well … until the view fuzzed into a white mist and a new batch of snow flurries.  Before getting back in the car I wandered up to happy-snap the photo of the gate (at left above) and to speak with the driver of the small truck. He and his companion turned out to be handsome young Swedish soldiers in green camouflage uniforms. They told me they expected the gate to open at 6:30am.

imageWe opted to spend intervening time topping off the gas tank and sending a message to Anne, alerting her to a possible delay.  We were especially excited about this meeting at the planetarium because it was also to involve Cecilie, and the possibility of connecting Sámi stars to one of her children’s books (see Post 8).  As Duke filled the tank, I snapped the only photo of Swedish aurora we have – the entrance to a restaurant & pub, complete with snowflake moisture on the lens!

 

The Abisko Oasis Part 3 – Morning till Noon of March 11th

On our way back toward the gate after gassing up, we saw the truck with the two soldiers heading away in the opposite direction.  Uh-oh!  So we decided to stop at the Abisko Turistation once again to see if the front desk could provide an update about the road closure. The new estimate for opening the pass was noon – 5.5 hours hence! There was no chance now to make our follow-up planetarium appointment as scheduled… bummer.

I sat in the car awhile in the Turistation parking lot, plugged into the power inverter to type notes for this post on my laptop. We neglected to bring with us our plug-in adapters for 220 volts, so the car’s system was the only means of charging the computer batteries.  I dozed off but was shortly awakened by Will rummaging in the back to get his snowshoes out so he could go for a hike on the famous King’s Trail (Kungsleden).

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Our man Will never wastes a minute.  His motto seems to be (after Ben Franklin): There will be plenty of time to sleep once you are dead.  hooded one-piece suitIn that spirit,  I was tempted to scramble to rent snowshoes and join him on the Kungsleden, but my body and mind just said no.  Will is also an evident master of making photos of himself in exotic places.  In the image above he clasps a signpost on the King’s Trail in his snowshoes with the Gateway mountains playing hide and seek in the clouds behind him. I imagine there will soon be an exotic photo of him lounging in his new one-piece hooded base layer among the reindeer skins on an ice-sculpted bed at the Ice Hotel.  [Ya-Ya send it along Will, and I’ll post it here instead of this fellow modeling your Patagonia body suit.] Got it! Click on image below for video as well.

Will at Ice Hotel IMG_9340

Abisko Lounge by FireAnyway, I used Will’s unwitting interruption of my car-seat dozing as an opportunity to transfer to the interior of the Turistation where Duke and I snoozed a bit more on the couches in the room with the small fireplace and the painting of the distinctively sloped Gateway mountains. Can you believe that in spite of my exhaustion, I had felt another impulse, this time to spring for the $350+ for a 4-hour dog sledding experience that was leaving 30 minutes from the time I walked back in the door?  But, it turns out you had to have signed up the night before.  Blessing.  I’ll do this someday with my goddaughter and her mother when I’ve had more than a couple hours sleep. Anyway, we needed to be ready to depart at a moment’s notice if that gate came open sooner than expected. Will nobly abbreviated his snowshoe outing for the same reason.

 

Snowplow Ho So Off We Go!

The powerful  snowplow truck (a Swedish Volvo, of course!) did arrive a bit early, zooming in from behind the now open gate, followed by a long stream of cars from the other side. Cars and trucks (including us) were lined up to venture forth. We were 9th in the queue.

Plow truck close up - compressedOpen gate

 

 

 

 

 

CherilynnLineoftrafficoutofAbiskov.3.jpgIt was very slow going. Two dark green Swedish Army trucks were in the lead and the slowest of all. As we found out later, these heavy trucks were being driven by young men from the south of Sweden who were up north for a 9-day training exercise. Two of them with whom we later spoke (while further stalled at the Swedish-Norwegian border) had run their rigs off the road. It made sense for them to take it slow. These young men were not experienced drivers of big trucks, let alone drivers of big trucks in the Arctic winter.  Ya-Ya, that’s how it is.

IMG_8979One silver lining to moving slowly was that we got to see and photograph a couple of young reindeer who seemed to appear out of nowhere and trot across the road. Well…at least we HOPE they were reindeer. Their coats seem to be right.

 

Tossing Swedish Snowballs (not Meatballs)

ClosedGateSwedishNorwegianborder.jpgAn additional two-hour wait for a plow at the border between Sweden and Norway forced us to relax further into our predicament and release any expectation of when we would be arriving back in Tromsø.  Before the sweater shop closed at least?   Maybe…maybe not. Ya-Ya that’s how it is.   We made the best of it.

 

CherilynnthrowingsnowballatDuke.pngWe pulled up ahead of the trucks at the stop so we could go faster when the plow came along. The truck drivers didn’t seem to mind.  In the photos I’m lobbing a snowball toward Duke who made a courageous photo. You can see the snowball in flight inside the dotted, red circle. It’s well camouflaged!  Below, the man in the background (with right foot forward) is the senior sergeant for the soldiers driving the Army trucks.

CherilynnthrowingsnowballatDukewidefield.jpg

 

 

 

Below left, Duke and I take turns trying to hit the up-slope rock face with snowballs. It’s much farther away than it looks!  Will captured three of the soldiers scrambling up the right side of the rock formation, evidently for the sheer fun of it, and perhaps to make yellow snow more discretely.

IMG_9002Cherilynn - snowball making close-upWill Soliders Climbing - cropped

 

Learning about Languages from Swedish Soldiers

I struck up a conversation with the sergeant and three of his men whose prior antics with snowballs and climbing the nearby rocks made me feel easy about it.  Will was damp and chilled from his snowshoe outing and so stayed in the car, working to organize his treasure trove of images to help tell this story!

The conversation with the soldiers was lively and wide-ranging. Duke and I learned about the interoperability (or not) of Scandanavian languages, Swedish education (which is paid), and Swedish military service, (which is voluntary).  Every third grader starts learning English, and a third language is chosen for study a couple of years later.

According to the Swedish soldiers, Swedes and Norwegians can understand one another. Danes can understand Swedes, but Swedes have a harder time understanding Danes.  Finnish is a whole other type of language, and the soldiers said they use English when working with the Finns.

language-lesson cartoonClick here for the humorous origins of the cartoon at right and the following quote: “All the other Nordic countries joke that Danish sounds like Swedes talking with a potato or porridge in their mouths, while Danes joke that Swedes sound like drunk Danes, and Norwegians sound like drunk Danes singing.”

The starting point for the cartoon: “Rødgrød med fløde” is Danish for a signature dessert: “Red berries with cream”.  This evokes fond memories of having been taught to say this phrase as I prepared for my very first trip Europe back in 1986. I tried out my accent for the soldiers. They laughed, and I’ll never know if it was any good.

 

Juggling Snowballs (not Meatballs) with Swedish Soldiers

At one point in our extended wait I felt inspired to try juggling three snowballs. I’d taught my precocious godchildren to juggle over the Christmas holiday, so I was up on it.  One of the soldiers wanted to learn so I started to teach him a bit.  Then the soldier who had been the most quiet and reserved during our earlier conversation went to pick up big, irregular hunks of snow and started juggling them effortlessly.  I asked him how he’d learned, and he replied that he’d just taught himself when he was a kid.

So he and I tried passing the three juggled snowballs to one another and actually found some success in both directions after busting a couple of snowballs on the ground. They’re slippery and delicate, you know?  If you over-squeeze them or grab at them, they break. The young man’s sergeant was surprised Young Snowball Juggler from YouTube videoby the “coming out” of his soldier’s excellent hand-eye coordination and said to him, “Hmmm…it seems I don’t know you as well as I thought.”

We don’t have any photos of our playtime with the soldiers, but I found this wonderful 2-minute snowball juggling video on Youtube.  Wow!  This kid is way better than any of us!

 

Dwarfing Scenery

Our juggling was interrupted by the coming of the snow plow, so we all shook hands, mounted our vehicles and waited for the plow to turn around so we could follow it as it cleared the road for two-way traffic. We would have been first behind the plow, but two other cars zoomed up ahead of us before the line took off.  We’d have done the same.

image Cherilynn - Windmills

The little square car was loaded with young people, evidently on vacation. In the right image above, notice how their car is dwarfed by the enormous size of a wind farm’s propellers. One wonders if these machines can collect energy in a blizzard’s wind.

Here below are some other delightful examples of “dwarfing” that can be found along the roadsides of Norway.  I honestly cannot explain why I am making this juxtaposition of a highly regarded Intrepid and a curiously gigantic Troll.  Perhaps it is only the way they are both grasping their implements and curling their fists.

Duke holding tripod by ice fallWillTroll_thumb.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Soldiers, Soldiers Everywhere

The military exercise in which our Swedish soldiers were participating involved coordination among many nations, and included ships and aircraft as well as ground forces.  Shades of the contemporaneous search for MH370.

For 100 km after we crossed into Norway, we saw many Army vehicles on the road, and also troops deployed beside the road with camouflaged tanks and guns. There were even some guys in white bunny suits who drove Army Tanks in Norwayski-mobiles. It felt odd to feel the military’s presence in the everyday sphere of society and tourism.  I realized that this doesn’t really happen so much in the US, where military exercises are more confined in areas away from where people are living and traveling.  But THIS is the Arctic, and there are only so many roads that go anywhere for any purpose.

Soldiers of the Aurora?

Cherilynn - walking soldier tripod-on-shoulderI sometimes fantasize that we could turn all the soldiers into aurora chasers, arm them with sturdy tripods and powerful cameras, and have them shoot the wonders of Earth and sky through their lenses instead of each other through camera-on-straptheir gun sights. Of course, we would still have to train them how to stay on the surface of deep snow and keep their vehicle on the road in a blizzard.

 

One of the most interesting things we learned from the Swedish soldiers we’d encountered was that it had been their second try to get over the border from Sweden to Norway.  The previous night they had been ordered to abort their attempt to cross over due to the blizzard and to return to the Abisko area.  Yeah…hyperspace blizzards are not good for Army trucks either.

 

Norwegian Sweaters and “Chili con Cod”

http://www.travelsignposts.com/Norway/files/2009/12/ajp_0247.jpgIt was dark when we finally got back to Tromsø, yet our weary bones went directly to the famous Norwegian sweater shop in town. In a delightful inversion of perhaps more typical gender roles, this activity was driven primarily by Duke and Will (click on the image to see the shop closer up).  I happily served as a size-calibrating model for the beloved women in their lives.

We next returned to our little red cabin to prepare and eat an irreproducible fish dish I’ll call “chili con cod”.  The lusciously ripe mango (sweet testament to the luxuries of our carbon-based economy) became part of breakfast the next morning after Duke dropped Will off at the bus station.

 

Avalanches on the Northern Lights Highway

Later the next day Duke and I learned from Anne (the planetarium manager) that while we’d been blizzard-ing in Sweden there had been major avalanches on the Northern Lights highway near Skibotn. We had often traveled this route to the sites near Finnish border (3 times), and to the Spåkanes shoreline with the dramatic view to the Lyngen Alps.  This Trip Advisor post of March 12th says the days prior involved aurora tour buses getting stuck for 14 hours before the road was cleared, and the Army reporting over 100 avalanches out in the terrain. The image at left is NOT ours, nor is it even near Skibotn, but it shows how a Norwegian avalanche can dwarf human infrastructure.  Whoa!

 

Is the Arctic Really Drunk, or Does it Just Act Like This Sometimes?

Yes…a big part of the trouble goes beyond the natural seasonal warming of springtime that routinely causes avalanches in such terrain. The Arctic region of our planet is becoming unseasonably warm – the climate (the average weather) is changing.  In a warmer climate it rains more (observed by Tromsø inhabitants), and it is well documented that rain-on-snow creates a greater risk of avalanches.  Yes, a snowpack that “drinks”  too much rain adds to its weight and lubricates its layers in ways that make it easier for an avalanche to occur (ahem).

Moreover, due to climate feedbacks that amplify higher-latitude warming, the rate of warming in the the Arctic has been twice that in mid-latitudes (say in the US). Paradoxically, global warming may be contributing to cold weather extremes at mid-latitudes through a weakening and wobbling of the jet stream (depicted above).

Rutgers’ climate scientist Jennifer Francis is a courageous leading light working to explain how this sort of extreme weather system could be related to Arctic climate change.  I’m going to let this excellent Mother Jones article involving Dr. Francis do the job of providing accessible details in a playful style.  The article is the namesake of this subsection. In other words, I stole the title because I liked it so much.

Out of curiosity, I looked into the inversion of temperatures with latitude for March 13th (late mum’s birthday) caused by the wobbling of the “drunken” jet stream.  As you can see in the table below it was indeed vastly colder in New York City than in Tromsø on this day when Duke and I departed Norway.  Whoa!

Location Latitude Low Temp High Temp
Tromsø 69°North 23°F (-5°C) 33°F (0.6°C)
New York City 41°North –8°F (-22°C) 0°F (-18°C)

 

Mangoes above the Arctic Circle?

Some scientists say that Arctic summers will be completely ice free within this decade. We are alive in a remarkable time when humanity (7 billion and rising) is conducting a big experiment on the capacity of planet Earth’s climate system to remain stable in the face of extreme provocation.  The Arctic warming is an early warning signal. Mango in arctic without slashThe coming changes may or may not be workable for our existing infrastructure.  As my colleague John Katzenberger (Executive Director of the Aspen Global Change Institute) so aptly puts it:  “We have become explorers into a world not known before and poorly imagined by modern humans.”  Yes,  we are rapidly running down the path to finding out the results of our massive greenhouse gas experiment. This includes routinely transporting tropical mangoes to folks living above the Arctic Circle.  Such luxuries are not compatible with the more sustainable world we must now create. How interesting to note that Norway already runs on 96% renewable energy — predominantly hydro-electric with a lot of potential for wind!

A Frightful Return to the US

The wacky winds of the jet stream also made the westward return trip across the Atlantic two hours longer than the eastward trip from the US to Europe had been.  Wind-induced turbulence frightened all of us aboard my flight as we approached the Newark’s Liberty airport.Crosswind correction in airplane I was breathing deeply to help manage the fear — my own and that of others.  We landed in a raging crosswind…first pounding in on the right side of the landing gear, and then lurching side to side before stabilizing.  I’ve flown a lot, and even earned a pilot’s license in my youth.  This situation was more hairy-scary than a Wookiee in a hyperspace blizzard.  Truly, it felt as though we were close to digging a wing into the runway.

Whew!  Then my flight to Atlanta in a smaller aircraft was cancelled due to high winds. Oh yes, my large bag hadn’t arrived from Oslo, and the sniff doggie had jumped on me thereby enhancing scrutiny in Customs,  and…Well once again I will spare you the details of my extrication, except to acknowledge the blessing of my new friend Kelly for his late-night pick up at the Atlanta airport after my 24 long hours of traveling from Tromsø.

 

Closing on a Brighter Note -  An Excerpt of the Sámi National Anthem

SamiFlag.jpgI close this epic final post (or e-book) with an English translation for the first two verses of the Sámi National Anthem. I was delighted to discover how beautifully these verses summarize much of our visual and aural experience in the Far North.  If you’ve traveled with us through this  blog (even a little), then these poetic words will evoke many of the images and ideas that have been shared.

1. Far up North ‘neath Ursa Major

Gently rises Saamiland.
Mountain upon mountain.
Lake upon lake.
Peaks, ridges and plateaus
Rising up to the skies.
Gurgling rivers, sighing forests.
Iron capes pointing sharp
Out towards the stormy sea.

2. Winter time with storm and cold

Fierce blizzards [hyperspace, in fact!].
Saami kin, with hearts and souls
Their lands do love.
Moonlight for the traveler,
Living Aurora flickering,
Grunt of reindeer heard in groves of birch,
Voices over lakes and open grounds,
Swish of sled on winter road.

Well, it seems we missed out on the “grunt of reindeer” and “swish of sled”. These will have to wait for the next trip of the Tromsø Intrepids!  Thank you so much for tuning in….

Cherilynn Duke Will - compressed cropped

Dr. Cherilynn Morrow, Aspen Global Change Institute (based in Atlanta)

Durand (Duke) Johnson, Clark Planetarium (Salt Lake City)

William (Will) Stoll, Atlanta International School

Post 8: Hunting and Fishing in the Sámi Sky

Cherilynn Duke Will - compressed cropped Today (9 March) we moved to new accommodations from our family-style Gulenvegen apartment in Tromsø to a small “camping cabin” (among dozens of others) on the outskirts of of the city. It took two trips in our micro-Yaris to get everything moved. The photo (with yours truly at left, Duke in the center, and Will at right) was snapped by our host Cecilie on the balcony of the Gulenvegen house (see leftmost of three small images below).  Our rooms were upstairs in her children’s (still youthfully adorned) rooms. We were more like paying informal house guests than formal renters.

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Cecilie is the woman in the image below right with her friend – a charming linguistics professor from the University of Tromsø. She is a lawyer, world traveler, and the author of the children’s book “Troll Hunt” whose cover is depicted in the middle image below.  Click on the image to learn more. We all bought copies of it for the children in our lives before our departure for the cabin. She is now writing a new book about the aurora.

51 Gulenvegen with micro-Yaris Troll Hunt book coverCecilie and her linguist professor friend

 

Dogs Showers in Our Little Red Cabin?

P1040229Click to enlarge and read the unusual sign we found posted in the bathroom of our little red cabin. The sign gave us a good laugh and caused me to quip about whether my long-bearded companions should be permitted to shower without violating the spirit of the sign’s prohibition. On the other hand, I have more hair than either of my compatriots combined, but neither of them retaliated with this point….such kind and capable gentlemen they both are.  While we certainly do get dog-tired on this expedition, we have not yet become dirty dogs.

P1040232P1040233  Bridge near Cabin - Tromso

 

In Cod We Trust?

Due to continued bad weather, our plan was to cozy up in the cabin for the evening where I would prepare a wholesome, fresh-fish dinner with the arctic cod that Duke and Will had purchased at the recommendation of our brilliant, blue-eyed friend Odd (see Post 3). The nutrient-rich waters along the coast of Norway are home to abundant fisheries of cod and other commercial species. Norway has one of the biggest fishing industries in the world!  Ya-Ya sure…but a last minute check of the regional weather revealed that there might be a break in the overcast during aurora prime times out near the (by now familiar) Finnish border.

Thus we had to consider whether we should take the time for a sit-down dinner with Odd’s cod, or instead get on the road to chase the gaps in the cloud cover, thereby risking the spoilage of fresh fish in the cabin’s marginally functional refrigerator.  Would the cod be there for us the next day?   In cod we trust?

It was not an easy decision. The team discussed the pros and cons at length, particularly in light of our plans to get an early start on a longer, 400-kilometer trek southward into Sweden the next day (10 March).  That journey would require many more hours of driving on mountain roads in difficult weather conditions.  Ideally we would be well rested and well nourished for that.

Of course the outcome of our deliberations was to abandon our fresh cod dinner and as I begin to outline this post, imagewe are zooming down the road in inclement weather to a place 100+ kilometers east of Tromsø to hunt for clear skies and photographically fish for northern lights.  I just wolfed down some packaged, processed fish smeared on a piece of our favorite seedy bread from the no-frills supermarket REMA 1000. The top of my laptop now has streaks from errant tuna goop, but nothing to prevent me from continuing to write this post.  Duke continued his relentless caloric stream of bananas and granola bars. Will provided the packaged tuna brought from the US, and he and I also grazed on REMA 1000 oranges and apples with the occasional banana that escaped Duke’s remarkable voracity for them.

Duke and Will with StroganoffBefore we left the cabin, the guys had also pre-gobbled bowls full of re-hydrated “Beef Stroganoff” product – foodstuff I found distinctly unappetizing, and Ya-Ya, downright inedible. In such moments when a sit-down meal was not in the cards and extra energy was called for, I also tended to reach for my Isagenix protein bars and shakes in which the guys had no interest, but which kept my engine running very well in a high-nutrition way (thanks brother Jeff!)

 

Will a Coronal Hole Make Good Fishing for Aurora?

In addition to the possibility of timely gaps in the clouds near the Finnish border, some of our space weather websites had indicated the possibility that a “coronal hole” on the Sun was rotating into alignment with Earth and could lead to more active northern lights.  This was a clincher for me in our decision making about whether to go out.

coronal_hole_mag_field - windows to the universe Coronal “holes” are places in the outer atmosphere (corona) of the Sun where the magnetic field lines are opened outward. This opened structure allows a much greater density of charged particles to stream away from the Sun.  When a greater density of particles interact with Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere, it is possible for the auroral lights to be enhanced.  This is not as great an opportunity as a bona-fide Earth-directed solar storm would be for producing dramatic aurora, but as our new Norwegian friends often say while speaking their remarkably adept English:  “Ya-Ya-Ya…That’s how it is.”  I haven’t yet been able to discern whether this frequent expression among English-speaking Scandanavians marks a sentiment of santosha (contentment with what is) or of resignation. For us, perhaps it is a blend of both.

We’re here in the far north of Norway first and foremost for the northern lights. If we don’t go out, we have no chance of photographing them.  If we do go out, there’s always a chance, however slim, of succeeding, even when the Earth and space weather reports are marginal.  In other words, enjoying a relaxing, fresh fish dinner is a much lower priority compared to racing out to the Finnish border to fish for aurora, even if we know an abundant “catch” is unlikely.

 

Play Time in Tromsø

P1030830 P1030828 Yet…I do confess that I had been looking forward to a quiet, warm, dry night at our cabin with another hearty, nourishing meal to bolster our reserves.   The combination of poor Earth weather and calm space weather had persuaded us to stay in Haakon beer from Mack breweryduring the past couple of nights, and we felt inspired to prepare some nice dinners and to do some daytime exploring of tourist sites in Tromsø.  The images above show a pasta feast, replete with arugula salad and garlic toast, that we enjoyed on one of the last nights at the Gulenvegen apartment.  Notice the cans of well-known Haakon beer from the Tromsø-based Mack Brewery. The six-pack cost us an outrageous 180 NOK = about $30!!

_MG_8252We also attended a late-night musical concert in the Arctic Cathedral, with the angelic voice of a frowning, young soprano. Her sullen expression could not erase the quality of her ethereal tone. Unfortunately, the high-cost concert was abbreviated to accommodate an incoming ship-load of tourists for a later performance. Ya-Ya…That’s how it is.

We also paid enjoyable daytime visits to the local Science Center/Planetarium and to the Polarium (polar aquarium). Like the cathedral, the architecture of these buildings was inventive.  The Polarium is at left below. The Science Center/Planetarium at right.

Science Center & Planetarium - cropped and compressed

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In the science center I especially loved the musical climbing wall. Each time my hand or foot touched a hold, a gentle tone played.  I could make music as I made my way across the wall.  I felt the gurgling joy of a happy child as I played with that wonderful climbing wall.  It was no substitute for the feeling that arises in response to witnessing the northern lights, but it was nonetheless a hugely welcome ray of light-hearted fun to illumine the sunless days.

The images below reveal some other joys of our “play time” at the science center (Vitensenter), although Duke mostly used the occasion as an opportunity to study new possibilities for exhibits back at Clark Planetarium in Salt Lake City where he serves as the exhibit manager.

In the photo at left below I’m playing with a reaction-time interactive. The yellow sticks are held up by magnets on the red metal arc over my head. Each stick falls at a random time.  The idea is to react quickly enough to catch it!  Will’s reaction time behind the camera caught me at a successful moment. [Click to enlarge any image.]

IMG_8211IMG_8201  Duke Body measurement

In the center image above, Will is demonstrating the mechanical advantage of a pulley. He can easily pull himself up to the ceiling. We could wish that our urban Atlanta physics students would have an opportunity like this to experience what “mechanical advantage” means with their bodies instead of only reading about it in a textbook.

In the rightmost image, our 6-foot, 6-inch (~1.98 meter) Duke is literally “off-scale” in the body interactive after Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man (a happy symbol of the conjoined art and science of our mission).

 

Connecting with Anne Bruvold at the Tromsø Planetarium

Anne and Cherilynn at Tromso Planetarium - cropped & compressed My space physicist friend and colleague, Dr. Pat Reiff of Rice University, had recommended that I connect with the Tromsø planetarium managerDuke and Ann in dome - cropped and compressed, Anne Bruvold, during our visit. Good advice!  Anne was delightful and spent generous time meeting with us. Our connection included private presentations about the star knowledge of the indigenous Sámi people and also of the Vikings. In addition, we explored the possibility of making use of some of Duke’s hard-won all-sky (fish-eye) images on the Tromsø planetarium dome. These are the “jelly-fish” data (see Post 4) we’d harvested last time we went out fishing for aurora near the Finnish border.  Anne so much appreciated the combination of expertise in photography and planetarium dome projection that our Duke brought to the conversation. It was truly awesome for me to see a couple of sample images on the dome, and to imagine the experience of immersion as well as the instructional possibilities when a smoothly morphing, all-sky, time-lapse video is running there. Hopefully all obstacles to working this out remotely can be overcome.

 

Pi in the Sky?

Anne Bruvold mentioned that one of the reasons she had more time for us was a cancellation of an after-hours meeting with some fellow knitters. Little did we know at the time that Anne is an accomplished ravelry artist, and you can browse samples of her designs here.  I was especially delighted by Irrational Scarf, which also conjoins art and science.  Well… you may need to be a bit of a Euro math nerd to love it. In spite of the usual comma where we would put a point, Americans could wear the scarf to help celebrate  Pi Day on  March 14th (Get it? 3-14? Thanks Kelly!).

But of course, for Europeans,  March 14th is 14-3 so it doesn’t really work world-wide.  However…. March 14th is also Einstein’s birthday, so the date can still work as an international geek-fest.  Or…. Europeans and others could use 22/7 (July 22nd = Pi Approximation Day) since 22 divided by 7 gives a good approximation to this wondrous “irrational” number that goes on and on to infinite decimal places yet geometrically is just the simple ratio of the circumference to the diameter of every circle in the universe.

AAAAAAGH!  Enough with the geek-speak already. Now for some visual and auroral relief.  Does anyone else besides me perceive a “giant pi (π) in the sky” in the northern lights patterns below?

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Rich Norwegian History of Science about the Aurora

imageWe also met with Anne’s colleague Terje Brundtland, the lead engineer at the science center. Terje built a replica of the famous Terrella experiment that was originally constructed in the early 1900’s by Norwegian scientist and explorer Kristian Birkeland. File:Birkeland-terrella.jpgThe real Terrella (pictured with Birkeland below) offered laboratory evidence for how the northern lights could be caused by charged particles from space interacting with Earth’s magnetic field and colliding with the molecules of upper atmospheric gases.  Birkeland’s theory of the aurora wasn’t confirmed until the late 1960’s using satellite observations.  It is a classic case of a fringe idea that was ridiculed by mainstream scientists of the time, but that eventually came to be accepted as mainstream theory. Today, scientists use the term “Birkeland currents” to refer to the streams of charged particles that couple Earth’s magnetosphere to the upper atmosphere (ionosphere).

Terje’s replica of the Terrella is now on display at the Tromsø  museum (which sadly we didn’t visit).  Terje pointed out to us that Birkeland and the Terrella are enshrined on the 200 NOK (Norwegian Kroner) bill. What a good idea to feature notable scientists on a nation’s currency!  Ironically, the name of Norwegian royalty (Haakon) was featured on the beer cans we’d purchased to accompany our special dinner (above).  Perhaps one day famous scientists might also be deemed deserving of this dubious distinction!  [NOTE: At about 6 NOK per US dollar, the 200 NOK Birkeland bill ($30-$35) would buy us a single six pack of Haakon beer].

 

Seeing the Stars – Sámi Style

Back to now-ness….As I write this paragraph, the guys are picking up from a futile attempt to deploy the cameras at a pull-off along the E8 to Finland. There are indeed episodic big holes of clear sky, but they close in as quickly as they come. Yet I am finding some joy, even without aurora, because the sky has been opening up long enough for me to perceive the three classical constellations that (thanks to Anne Bruvold) I now know help make up the Sámi constellation called Sarvvis – the elk, moose, or reindeer, depending on the storyteller.

The photo of aurora below was made on a previous night, contemporaneously with the “jelly fish-eye” images (see Post 4). Though we had no idea about the Sámi stars at the time,  I have now gone back to mark the large, antlered mammal in the sky according to the sky map Anne shared with us.  The W-shaped arrangement of stars (rightmost) comprise the constellation Cassiopeia and this represents part of the antlers. The front legs (center) are made up of what western astronomers call Perseus, and the hind legs (leftmost) are formed by Auriga. Please never you mind if these constellations are unfamiliar to you, just enjoy the image!

Sami Reindeer - Annotated 4

image And so now… to my delight, I will never be able to see these constellations in quite the same way again. I look forward to sharing this new way for a reindeer to be in the sky with my godchildren, Arthur, Moira, and Alex with whom I love to spend Christmas.  And Moira (you dog-sledding, cross-country skiing wonder of a teen woman), if you are still reading these posts, go ahead and share this with your brothers and parents (beloved Jan and Mike).  We’ll look for these stars the next time we’re together in winter! They will be MUCH higher in the sky at more southerly latitudes where you live in Michigan.

imageI so much loved seeing familiar stars in a new way – through the eyes of Sámi culture – especially since the road on which we were traveling (E8) had been important to the Sámi as a reindeer sledding route. Moreover we were near a Sámi region of reindeer husbandry (see the E8 road sign at right which we had photographed on “Jellyfish” night after crossing the border with Finland). The languages on the sign (from top to bottom) are Finnish, English, and German.

From time to time during tonight’s (9 March) fitful excursion I could see other Sámi stars.  Arcturus (on the opposite side of the sky from the antlered mammal) represents a Sámi hunter Fávdna. The three stars of Orion’s belt represent helpers on the hunt (Gállábártnit) which are dogs for some tribes (see the little green figures depicted in the lower left of the StarLab sketch of Sámi constellations below). Can you find these three stars in the real auroral image above?  HINT: The three stars of Orion’s belt are mixed in with the trees in the lower left portion of the image.

http://starlab.com/shop/images/P/slcylmythlap.jpgHmmmm…three “dogs” hunting in the sky…yes, like us!  (Fortunately those Sámi star “dogs” don’t need showers like we do.)  According to Anne, Viking star lore says that the three stars of Orion’s belt are fishermen.  Yes…fishing in the sky is like us too!

I sure wish all those starry hunters and fishermen could have helped us with the northern lights. It’s now midnight. We’ve been chasing, stopping, and hunting the skies periodically along the E8 for a couple of hours now. There have indeed been some pretty big clearings, but all along they have rapidly closed, with spits of precipitation that would just make water drops on our lenses.

 

Stop and Go Aurora

Stop light-croppedP1030437So we’ve given up our fresh cod dinner and risked casting our cameras on the poles of their tripods in wettish weather, but there have been no detectable auroral lights to be fished or photographed tonight. imageSo we are retreating the 100 km back to our our little red cabin. The only green and red lights in sight are the static ones provided by our familiar friend the E8 road construction traffic light.  Sadly we are missing the art and soul of dancing aurora in the sky here on the Northern Lights Highway.

Post 7: Nerds in the Norwegian Night

Map Tromso to SpokanesIt is the night of 6-7 March. We have driven 200 km from Tromsø (Point A) to a place called Spåkanes (Spoh-kah-nes) which is Point B on the screen capture of a Google map at left (click to enlarge).  Notice that in order to get to a point approximately 90 km west of Tromsø, we must drive a substantial way in every other direction – south, north, and east!  The area shaded in green marks the Lyngen Alps. This mountain range is one reason why weather prediction is not so easy.

Wizard hat mountain - 6 Mar 2014 The weather map we consulted earlier suggested that skies will be clear in this region within a few hours, however at the moment (8:40 pm), the car is being pelted by freezing rain and buffeted by high winds.  Our map says that the view is especially beautiful here, but it is dark and we cannot tell what is out there. The long arctic twilight allowed us to see outrageously breathtaking scenery for about half our drive. Wow…we really do need to get out in the daytime much more!

Will mountain on the road with moon_MG_8092

In the daytime we realized that the peak above was the same one that we had photographed a couple of late nights before on the way back from Finland. Here is the photograph Will made then with auroral lights appearing to be entwined with the clouds. Of course the northern lights are vastly higher in the atmosphere (~100 km) than the clouds which are much less than 10 km (~33,000 feet). _MG_7406

As night fell on our journey to Spåkanes, we stopped at a gas station near Skibotn to go wee. This is near where the E8 takes off toward the Finnish border (see Posts 2 and 4 for our adventures up that road). There was a convenience store Chocolate Bars - cropped P1030788where the offerings were surprisingly similar to those in the US, including junk food like hot dogs and chips, and junk drinks like soda pop. But then…then I spied a treat one would NOT find in a comparable US venue – premium dark chocolate bars with 70% cacao! I did not hesitate to spend approximately $12 on two bars. These Norwegians have very high salaries, and of course only tourists buy their chocolate at a gas station on the northern lights highway, so it’s pricey.

Power Inverter P1030775It turns out that Spåkanes is little more than a few houses and perhaps an inn of some kind. While waiting for the predicted clearing, all three of us are sitting in the car working on computers plugged into a power strip that is plugged into a power inverter that is plugged into the car’s power socket.  You could say we are in a kind of (ahem) “Lap(top)land”.  Will is processing images.  Duke is studying how to use a device that can automate time lapse photography across day to night transitions. Of course,  I (Cherilynn) am writing this post. The power inverter is working hard and is letting us know this in several sensible ways, including the heat of its black and red body, the intermittent whir of its little cooling fan, and the pungent (and mildly nauseating) scent of hot plastic. Yes….we are nerds in the Norwegian night.

Now we are on our way back to Tromsø in the rain and snow.  It is after midnight – the time when a powerful wave of hunger has been striking us, particularly when we have been active in the field. So out comes our food bag … because yes, we have certainly been active, even though the northern lights have been quiet. Here’s the story…

Shortly after 10 pm, the rain subsided and we caught sight of the waxing crescent moon emerging from behind the clouds with a hint of green aurora to the right of it. In the moonlight we could begin to perceive the stunning nature of our location, looking across a fairly narrow channel of water to a collection of gorgeous cone-like peaks – a stretch of the Lyngen Alps!

We quickly realized that we needed to move a bit further down the road and deploy the cameras down the steep bank nearer to the water.  We found a decent way to park the car though once again, we faced challenging terrain, this time with thick, slippery mud on a steep bank, uneven clumps of grass, and large, slimy, seaweed-covered rocks at water’s edge.  Our new location put the moon in a great position over the peaks with its light reflected in the water.

The air was still moving fairly fast, but the temperature was a moderate 4-5C and so well above freezing (5C=40F).  It is interesting that we are several degrees farther north in latitude than our Yellowknife expedition last year (which was just below the Arctic Circle), yet we are also experiencing vastly warmer temperatures here at a location well above the Arctic Circle.  Our full-up arctic clothing has been unnecessary.  The reason?

Ocean currents - annotated with observing locationYellowknife is located in the Northwest Territories of Canada and is vastly more land-locked. The coastal regions of Norway are generally warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer because the Atlantic Ocean and the nearby coastal waters have a moderating effect on the extremes of temperature. Click image to enlarge and find the encircled regions of our 2013 and current (2014) expeditions.

Now back to our relatively warm and windy Norwegian coastline then!  Though there was very little auroral activity this night, we enjoyed a rather blissful, hour-long window of partially clear skies in this scenic, moonlit location before the sudden onset of gale-force winds and complete overcast caused us to retreat, scrambling to keep our bodies and camera tripods from toppling over.

Below are a couple of samples of the evening’s other-worldly photographic gifts. The water rolled to the rocky shore in frequent small waves that are washed out in the longer time exposures. The straight line at left is either a satellite or very high-flying aircraft, both of which are commonly seen at high latitudes (69+degrees North).  Be sure to click on the smaller images to enlarge them.  We REALLY want to see this place in the light of day!

Will at Spakanes_MG_8114

_MG_8164I wish I could somehow post for you the indescribably sweet freshness of the air on this coast.  It was not salty, nor fishy, nor floral….yet was it imbued with a profoundly pleasing scent that invited me to inhale deeply and let it saturate my body.  Once Duke and Will were established with their cameras, I found a moment alone to do some yogic breathing as the moonlight shimmered off the water. What an invigorating pleasure to be alive and in this place…nerdishness gently giving way to blissfulness…and even exhilaration when the gale-force winds arose.  No cameras fell this night.

Post 6: Fallen Camera

The barometric pressure and one of our cameras went down tonight (5-6 March).  As I write, the weather is deteriorating. We have just returned to our Tromsø apartment from an exploratory mission to a relatively unpopulated shoreline about 30 km west toward Sommerøy (an island community on the coast). We were hoping to find a good vantage point for photographing auroral lights reflected in water.

Panoramic _MG_8026

Looking out over the water there were snowy peaks and the more distant illuminated arch of the Sommerøy bridge (left of center).  The crescent moon (with Earthshine!) ducked in and out of the clouds, setting the water aglow when it was out, and setting a cloud aglow when hiding. The wind gusted strongly, perhaps to 20-25 mph (or about 11 meters/sec as indicated on the signs of the Tromsø bridges). But the temperature was a balmy 5C (40F) which was delightfully warmer than the previous night’s inland adventure at Peak and Creek, with a low temperature of –15C (5F).

All sky IMG_2381 Duke set up an all-sky camera relatively close-in to the car and we ventured on foot about a mile (1.6 km) down the dark coast. The footing was very uneven with awkward ball-like clumps of grass episodically crossed with sloping streams of solid (and very slippery) ice. To make matters even more challenging, our path was necessarily not well illuminated, except by the crescent moon, since our headlamps would contaminate the all sky footage.

Duke and Will deployed mobile cameras on their tripods as we walked the coast, setting up at different spots along the way as the sky or the spirit moved. The northern lights erupted delightfully for a few minutes in a gap between the clouds, but the storm of lights occurred behind us over some rather ordinary hills. The all sky camera had been deliberately oriented more toward the water and so barely reveals the eruption (see upper right at about 2 o’clock in the image above).  But the mobile cameras were able to turn and capture the rapture (see the image below)!  Notice the greenish glow of auroral lights in the frozen stream.

Ice eruption_MG_7982

Will lighthouse_MG_8030 Down the shoreline a ways we discovered that a curious light we’d seen on the horizon was coming from a little lighthouse (about 20 ft or 6 m high).   Be sure to click on the image to enlarge it. The green light in the sky is aurora. The silver light is moon glow.  The orange glow is light pollution from Sommerøy. The line in the sky just left of center at the top is most likely a satellite.  We see a LOT of them at this latitude!  By the way, neither Duke nor I (Cherilynn) had ever been above the Arctic Circle before this trip so we’ve broken our latitude records. Will has been all the way to Purdhoe Bay, Alaska at 79 degrees North during the summer of 2010.

The clouds eventually closed in on us, but the northern lights were still quite active. They illuminated the sky from behind the clouds with a soft, other worldly green glow that was also reflected off the water.

All green _LND2635

As I write, the guys are sitting on the couch of our Tromsø apartment attempting to repair the fallen camera – a Canon 6D with a $1200 wide-angle lens affixed. You might think that a team member had slipped on the ice, or stumbled on P1030689the rocky shore, or tripped over the clumps of grass during the miles of walking while hauling heavy camera gear. But no. All of that was safely completed. Alas, the camera fell over while leaning against our car after we had called it a night.

Fortunately, the lens appears to be okay, however the fall shattered the lens cap and a glass filter situated before the lens. The impact of the fall bent the filter’s metal rim making it impossible to remove, even after 30-40 minutes of diligent effort.  So the new plan is to break out the rest of the filter’s glass, clean the lens and use the camera with the filter rim in place, hopefully without silhouetting or other unforeseen problems.  Whew!  On we go.

Post 5: Peak and Creek

Map Tromso to Sommeroy We got an earlier start on 4 March in order that Duke could set up an all sky camera that would record the transition between daylight and dark in a beautiful setting about 30 km west of Tromsø whose combination of striking peaks and an icy creek we all loved. It was clearly a favorite destination among locals for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. The snow was very deep beneath our feet, however the frozen surface (due to an unusual amount of rain in the region) made it unnecessary to use anything other than our boots to make the trek in.   We had an unusually clear day and night in which to work.Duke & Cherilynn walking in IMG_7417

In the photo above, Will has documented Duke and myself (Cherilynn in red) carrying in the gear that will support the all-sky set up. The plan was to get Duke up and running with the all sky, and then Will and I would continue down the road (Route 862) to Sommerøy to scout the terrain while there was a bit of daylight left.  We would then return to support nighttime photography.

The photo below captures Duke working to install one of two all-sky cameras.  We positioned one in the open field in order to capture the twilight-to-nighttime transition and hopefully the onset of aurora. Duke also planned to set up another all-sky camera after nightfall over by an especially photogenic place on a creek that we had scouted out earlier. The creek is to the left out of the frame of the image below.

Duke setting up all sky IMG_7432

P1030648 Duke (at right) put on all the layers he had brought with him to Norway in order to ensure relative comfort in the cold for a few hours while Will and I traveled to Sommerøy and back.  His clothing would need to serve as his sole source of shelter until we returned.

The car ride to Sommerøy in the twilight hours was overwhelmingly beautiful as the images below reveal.  Will and I stopped countless times to make photos, and at last caught sight of how breath-taking the reflections of the mountains in the fjords can be (see below).

P1030658

We were also quite enchanted by the graceful arc of the Sommerøy bridge (below).

_MG_7582

When Will and I got back to the Peak and Creek site where Duke was, we were a bit surprised to find the auroral lights going strong. We had not been able to see them from the coast.  We quickly geared up for the cold (-15C = -5F), and then I set off to check on Duke and deliver his chicken sandwich, while Will set up to start shooting “normal” (meaning non-fish-eye) photography of the lights. The site of the all sky camera in the open field was very challenging to find in the dark, and we had to use our voices to guide each other to the site in a way that avoids someone inadvertently appearing in the field of view.  As I arrived, Duke was setting up the second all sky camera by the creek and making his way back to the all sky site in the open field.

My favorite moment that night was when we were all three together by the site in the open field …beneath the peaks…. a mile away from the road…lying on our backs in the crusty snow and gazing up a gorgeous, multi-strand eruption of the northern lights that occurred around midnight. Will had already made a nice series of images from an earlier storm and was taking a break.  His camera was a kilometer or more away.  Duke’s all sky cameras were cranking along, one nearby and the other a couple of hundred meters away by the creek. There was nothing to do but let the glory of the celestial lights seep into our souls.

Here are some of my favorite images made by Will that night._MG_7833 Click to enlarge!  _MG_7887

 

 

 

 

_MG_7626

_MG_7726Notice how the the creek reflects the  green auroral light in the image above.  In the image below, the beautiful purple light was not obvious to to the unaided eye, but the camera records its presence beautifully.

_MG_7921 The colors of the northern lights depend on the type of molecule in the atmosphere, generally some form of oxygen or nitrogen (see the spectrum below). The colors are also affected by the energy of the electrons from the Sun and Earth magnetosphere that are colliding and exciting the oxygen and nitrogen molecules at different altitudes. As the excited molecules relax back to their ground states they emit the light in the Earth’s upper atmosphere that we see and record as aurora. When there is more solar activity, the lights are generally brighter and more dynamic. There may also be a fuller spectrum of colors on display or possibly an intense brightening in a particular color.

image

Auroral photography is humbling.  After all of the effort to set up and endure the cold, only one of the two all sky cameras properly recorded images that night – the Canon camera by the creek. The higher-tech Nikon somehow flipped exposure settings in the middle of the run, making hours of data utterly useless.  Aaaargh!

Yet on we go!  Below is a peek at an all-sky image from the camera by the creek.  We hope you enjoy exploring its beauty and delightful details…and perhaps…you might even catch a hint of why we were all so taken with our Peak and Creek observation site. Thank you dear automated all-sky camera for allowing us to be recording images like this while we took a moment for some soul seeping.All Sky - Canon - with creek - larger - IMG_1577 2

Post 4: “Jelly” Fish Eyes in the Sky?

Enjoy clicking rhythmically through the sequence of all sky images below to experience a video-like effect.  A longer version of such a sequence will be developed into a time lapse video for a planetarium dome. It will take 120 images like this to make one minute of time-lapse video. [IMPORTANT NOTE: The forward arrow to the RIGHT of the image is a bit difficult to see, but it is there. Click on the arrow to advance the slides.]

Click on the arrow at right of the image above to advance the slides.

The slide show above is a sample from one of two sequences recorded using fish-eye lenses on the evening of 3-4 March out near the Finnish border. And unlike a couple of days ago, this time we actually INTENDED to be out that way (see Post 2) – the nearest place we could find with clear skies. As you click through the images watch for how the auroral light is sometimes reflected in a small patch of water in the foreground.  So delightful!  Given the aurora’s appearance, I’ve taken to calling this a Jelly-Fish-Eye sequence.  Is it a reasonable likeness?  For fun, check out this short video of a jellyfish swimming in the Baltic Sea (just south of here between Sweden and Finland) and see what YOU think.

Below is a link to a rough-cut offering a small taste of what a smooth time-lapse video will be like. Duke had to process the sequence of images and send away to a colleague back in Salt Lake in order to bring this to you via the blog.  It is really important to choose a natural pacing for the lights, and this one is nice. It is probably even more realistic to move the frames a bit slower.  Try to imagine sitting in a planetarium with this playing on the full dome overhead with some evocative music.  Oh yes please!!!!  Here is the sample time-lapse video.

Meanwhile, please do not forget that the unaided human eye cannot perceive all of what Duke’s camera reveals using 15-second integration times for each image (ISO 4000, f3.5 for the photographers out there). The integration time for a human eye is about 1/30th of a second. While this particular sequence was being recorded we did not perceive with our own eyes the full brightness and structure you see by toggling through the images.  Nor is it possible to see the whole sky at once with the naked eye. In real time  we generally witnessed a more faint and diffuse green light overhead with the slow rippling of vertical shafts of light near the horizon drawing most of our real-time attention.  Truth be told, we were lucky to get ANY auroral images this night, and we had to travel far and wide to do it as you will learn below.

For this excursion, I (Cherilynn) enjoyed being the driver of our micro-Yaris rental car with its unfamiliar, six-speed stick-shift transmission (reverse in the upper left of the gear box). We drove a total of about 300 km, scouting new territory in daylight, and then scrambling for clear skies as the long Arctic twilight gave way to full up darkness. We were out from 1pm on the 3rd to 5am on the 4th – 16 hours!We began the day by venturing northward to explore the region around Dåfjord (click to enlarge map). Map of Ice and Finland Day 3-4 MarThe border with Finland is all the way down in the lower right of the map.  The images you clicked through above come from a place about 10 minutes shy of this border on the Norway side – the nearest place we could find with clear skies.  And of course, we encountered our infamous little stoplight again, this time making its picture (below). Stop light-croppedWhen the northern lights subsided, it was well after 1am, yet all of us expressed enthusiasm for driving onward into Finland – a place none of us had ever set foot. We did not go all the way to Kilpisjärvi (Point B on the map), but we did cross the border!  The road sign Will and I are pointing out in the image below says “Suomi” — the Finnish word for Finland. Border shot - Cherilynn & Will - cropped

By the way, we are indeed managing to pack all the needed gear into our little car. This means four cameras with tripods and assorted lenses and filters, plus three sizable humans (Duke is 6-foot 6 inches tall), each outfitted with clothing for arctic climes plus food and drink.

Driving is quite different here in the far north of Norway. Many roads are narrow, with one-way bridges.  Frost heaves and black ice are also common features because the roads generally wind around on the coastlines of islands with fjords or lakes on one side and steep rises to frosted rocky mountains on the other side. With the low winter sun, lots of road surface is in extended shadow, and in sunnier areas the cycles of freezing and thawing make it difficult to maintain a smooth road surface.  Well…it’s a good thing our trusty micro-Yaris has studded snow tires, and that our drivers grew up on farms in the northern US driving stick-shift cars and tractors.

Roadsides here are also adorned with remarkable ice formations of all sizes and shapes. We spent more than an hour photographing the fractal forms of a spectacular frozen waterfall near Dåfjord before chasing hundreds of kilometers southeastward out from under cloud cover toward Finland to observe and record the aurora. At the end of this post is a slide show of images from the frozen waterfall, but first let’s review a few images to get the bigger picture of where we were situated. The photo below shows Dåfjord with lots of homes (no businesses) on the land jutting out into the fjord. Our frozen waterfall is across the fjord on the coastline in the left and center of the image. P1030491Driving down the hill toward Dåfjord gave us a close up (below) of thin ice on the water._LND2510Driving around the fjord (where you see the dark trees in the image above) puts us on a narrow road traveling to the right beneath the mountains in the image. The section of the road with our frozen waterfall is still further to the right beyond what is shown in the picture.  From that far coast, looking back across Dåfjord, we see a lovely alpenglow on a snowy mountain top (below).P1030611Now for the promised slide show, offering you a deep dive into the glorious microcosm of our enchanting frozen waterfall. We hope you enjoy it.

 

And now for a bonus!  Duke just delivered some images recorded by the second fish-eye camera he set up near the Finland border to get a different foreground. It too has a jellyfish-eye quality.  And so with this all-sky sequence, Post 4 is finally Finnish-ed!

Post 3: Mighty Arches in the Sky

All Sky Arch - 1to2 Mar 2014 _DSC2206 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.

All Sky Storm - 1to2Mar 2014 _DSC2336 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 P1030427Tromso – 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.]

Duke's Favorite - 1to2 Mar 2014 _LND2374 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.

Will arrives Tromso 2 Mar 2014 P1030435 - cropped

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!

Cool blue Mountain Peak _MG_6988 - re-sized

Post 2: Waiting for Green Lights

Ready-Set-Stop The sky is clear and dark but the northern lights are inactive. The sign outside our tiny silver car says “Ved rodt lys Stopp her”, so we are sitting still at a red light (rodt lys) that controls a 0.5 km section of single lane road on a blustery mountain pass in the middle of nowhere. It is 1 am. There are no other people or cars or lights in sight. Duke and I (Cherilynn) are discussing whether or not to obey the signal. The laughable absurdity of our situation is my impetus to begin writing this post.  I have plugged my laptop into the power inverter Duke has installed in the car to re-charge camera batteries.  We are waiting until the light turns green.  It is surreal, particularly since at this moment we do not actually know where we are, and we do not know if there is really any other vehicle coming from the other direction. Still, we are waiting for the green light. It is so weird to be waiting in the wilderness for this green light.

E8-miniSomehow we missed a turn to our planned destination of a town called Skibotn (SHEE-bohtin) along a route known as the Northern Lights highway (E8).  Skibotn is about 120 km from our base in Tromso, NORWAY.  But after 150+ km on the trip odometer and increasing signs of remote wilderness (in spite of the sign saying “Ved rodt lys Stopp her”), we are at last awakened to our mysterious navigational error and are reversing our course…and now waiting for this absurd green light – okay a second time!  One could wonder how we missed our cue about turning around when the red light on the other side of this narrow stretch of road first stopped us.  Oh well…

Now it is a day later as I work to complete this post, and I can relate how the rest of the evening of (28 Feb – 1 Mar) unfolded.  After more than 10 minutes the light finally turned green with no other vehicle having passed through the zone.   Closer scrutiny of our low resolution roadmap revealed that we had ventured far beyond the turn onto E6 that would take us to Skibotn and had evidently traveled to within 10 km of the Finnish/Lapland border by continuing on the apparently historic E8** before turning around.  So then, in addition to kicking ourselves for the navigational error, we were kicking ourselves for having turned around before reaching Finland – a country neither of us has visited before.

Aaaaagh!!  Little to no northern lights, no Skibotn, no first time in Finland, and a long drive (2+ hours) back to home base in Tromso.  We were feeling more than a little bit defeated. Yeah…Ready, Set, STOP!  That’s how it felt.

Until….a very late night STOP! along the E8 within an hour of Tromso gave us the gift of the ghostly green lights such as you see in the image below.

Butterfly - First Night - Processed We would have missed this display if we had returned to Tromso earlier in the evening. We finally arrived back at our little apartment on Gulenvegen in Tromso at about 4am…exhausted and grateful.  Yes…it is evidently good to wait for green lights.

** From a panel about the E8 at a roadside stop:  A trail of some kind has existed as a Northern Peninsula link from Skibotn to the northern regions of Finland for ages. Local people used the road to reach markets in Norway, Sweden and Finland. The road was constructed for reindeer and sleds, and was only navigable during the winter months. During World War II, the German occupation forces in Norway constructed a traffic road to the Finnish border. Sections of this original road, on the stretch between Skibotn and the Finnish border, have been preserved to this day. 

Here is a YouTube link to let you see what this part of the E8 is like in the daytime.  Remember that for us, it was totally dark and we did not have the escort service!

Post 1: Arriving Near the Top of the World!

Duke and I traveled radically different routes from the US to rendezvous at the airport in Oslo (capital of Norway) a couple of days ago.  We took the same flight from Oslo to Tromso, sitting on opposite sides of the airplane. The album above shows you a bit of the exotic nature of our location. Snowy, jagged alpine peaks thrusting a thousand or two meters from dramatic sea level fyords.

From the Tromso airport we took bus #42 into town to rent our “micro-sized” Toyota YARIS into which we were barely able to squeeze our gear.  It will be interesting when our teammate Will arrives on Sunday to fit three of us AND all the gear for our nightly excursions to chase the northern lights.

Erik - Couch Surfer Host 20140228_110528It was raining the night of our arrival and so we sought the safe haven of our kind and precocious couch surfing host Erik (pictured at left). Erik is studying French literature at the local university. He had earned a degree in Spanish from the University of North Dakota where Duke also had gone to school years before. That’s four languages and counting! Cherilynn and Duke are bracketing Erik in the happy image below.

Cherilynn, Erik, Duke in TromsoWe dined all together at a local restaurant called Kaia that was right on the water near to the place where cruise ships come into port.  It was very interesting and VERY expensive. We certainly won’t be doing that much more.  Note the interesting item “with cream sauce” on the menu below (click to enlarge – for any image).Reindeer Menu Compare

P1030420In addition, while we were waiting for our food, a boat docked right outside the window with a hot tub full of well-sculpted men at the stern. We have self-censored the photo for which they willingly and joyfully posed. Let us call it a brand of “indecent” Northern Exposure, although in Scandanavian culture, the lovely human body is a perfectly natural thing to display.

Far North of NorwayThe geography here is fascinating. Check out the map at right (click to enlarge) to see how  Norway (orange) arcs over the north of both Sweden (yellow) and Finland (green) to share a border with Russia in the east!  Duke and I had a nearer-than-intended encounter with the Finnish/Lapland border last night (28 Feb- 1 Mar), while traveling the Northern Lights highway to the southeast from Tromso.  More in our next post.

Now it is time to ready for this evening’s excursion.  It turns out that the weather report in Tromso (we are using www.yr.no) has only a little to do with whether skies are clear in the midst of the surrounding mountains.  This invites us to “chase” around the local microclimates in search of clear skies and our best possibility of making images of the northern lights.

Of course the Sun’s activity and Earth’s magnetic field must also cooperate. We need both good Earth weather and good Space “weather”!

Post 0: 2nd Northern Lights Adventure!

Duke Johnson, Will Stoll, and Cherilynn Morrow. Yellowknife Airport. March 2013

Duke Johnson, Will Stoll, and Cherilynn Morrow. Will send-off. Yellowknife Airport. March 2013

HERE WE GO AGAIN!  The Tremendous Trio of impassioned science educators is traveling to Tromso, NORWAY to photograph the northern lights!  Last year (2013) our northern lights adventures took us to Yellowknife, CANADA.  The blog for that mission starts here and also tells you a bit about who we are. Yellowknife was so enlivening (including the outreach mission after we returned) we could not resist another opportunity during this solar maximum. The next one is 11 years from now.  Carpe diem!

There is a LOT more chance of cloudiness in Tromso compared to Yellowknife, but it is worth taking the chance to go because of the pervasively enchanting scenery.  We yearn to see and share images of the northern lights reflected in water and/or illuminating some snow capped peaks.

Sooo…come along with the Tremendous Tromso Trio  via this blog!  The team looks forward to your comments and questions.

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.  So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.  – Mark Twain