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Seeing the Northern Lights!

Saturday we did a dinner cruise to hopefully see Northern Lights. You can technically see them from the city of Tromsø if they are bright enough, but the weather was terrible. It hailed, it snowed, it was frigid. The cruise was unsuccessful in the way of aurora-spotting and general merriment (boat sickness). It was successful, however, in that we chatted with an older couple who had seen lights the night before on a bus tour. I was skeptical of the purported EIGHT HOURS of driving because I didn't want to get car sick, but my mother was insistent that Norway would be a failure if we didn't see them. Luckily, I had Dramamine, so we booked it.

The bus tour is a "chasing lights" tour. They literally look at the weather to see where it will be clearest and then drive around until they find the lights. The couple we talked to had driven four hours to the Finnish border, seen a few lights, and then got a great show on the way back, about half an hour outside Tromsø. The idea of being nauseous on a bus for eight hours is my literal hell, but I drugged myself heartily, we brought crackers and the only ginger seltzer water we could find, and I resigned myself to my impending death in search of the lights. Luckily for us, we only drove an hour and a half before we stopped for the night at a place the guides chose.

We drove toward the Swedish border, but stayed well within the Arctic Circle. If you are confused where Norway is located, this country is the most western part of Scandinavia and is north of Germany and Denmark. In the below picture, you can see where Tromso, Norway is on a map and what part of Norway is within the Arctic Circle.

tromso norway map with arctic circle norway map

You can see in these pre-aurora photos that it was fairly clear out. You cannot see that it was truly, absolutely freezing. We waited about two hours for the lights to come out, intermittently hopping back on the bus to thaw and going back out to stare at a beautiful if aurora-less sky. The guides made us a fire, we had hot chocolate, and we just chatted.

What are the Northern Lights? A little bit of science now that I sort of understand it. Basically, the sun emits charged particles regularly, some of them in our direction. The magnetic poles protect the planet from these 'coronal mass ejections,' or solar flares as you may know them, by attracting the particles into two auroral halos above the poles. When the charged particles interact with the mostly nitrogen and oxygen in our atmosphere, they release energy as light. Because the auroras happen far above the clouds (between 55-300 miles up!), you need clear skies and limited light pollution to see them.

Now, these pictures are stunning. They are totally unedited #nofilter. But you should also know that it didn't actually look quite like this in person. Allow me one more quick science to explain. Our eyes have cones (red, blue, and green) and rods which allow us to see in low light but cannot perceive color. As a result, the less bright auroras appeared mostly white and gray. Only when they got pretty bright were we able to see a green tint to them. The camera, thanks to a very slow shutter speed, takes in a ton of this low light and then displays it as super colorful. And it's gorgeous, but in real life, it was a bit fainter than this. The super bright ones looked in person like the lighter photos, and the lighter auroras looked like odd clouds. The camera was helpful to know what we were seeing: with the less active auroras, we would wonder "cloud or aurora?" and if it showed up green in a photo, then we knew.

Seeing this in person was pretty awesome. At first, it was just an arch that grew slowly across the sky. It kind of looked like a fast cloud. It of course looked more exciting in photos, but I was a little underwhelmed. Then we got two or three arches and the column ones, and I was sufficiently whelmed. The setting was beautiful, and there were a bunch of stars out. My favorite was when it started 'dancing' with little columns popping up across the sky. I caught a quick video of it:

This trip was definitely, absolutely worth it. With the cost, the driving, and the bitter, bitter cold - it was still worth it. I would do it again for sure. It was a very cool experience.

Here's one last photo of the beautiful view from the plane as we were leaving the Arctic. You can see the island of Tromsø on the right, connected by bridges to other islands on the left and the mainland on the far right.


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