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Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Aurora Borealis, near Tromso, Norway

Aurora Tromso Northern Lights Aurora Tromso Northern Lights

We’d begun to think we mightn’t see the Northern Lights in Tromso after all.  It rarely stopped snowing and at night time the sky was almost always cloudy.  And then there was the bitter, motivation-sapping cold to contend with in any case.  But we got out on three nights, driving around two hours away from Tromso to escape the light pollution from the region’s small towns and villages.

The first night we stopped on the edge of a dark patch of road a few kilometres short of Skibotn.  But the thick cloud never lifted and 1.30 am came without us having seen anything.  Except more cloud and snow! You might think that in such a sparsely populated area there would be a near infinite number of roadside places to stop and wait.  But surprisingly there are almost none.  The whole landscape is blanketed with thick snow, and along the roads intensely-lit snow-clearing machines continually go up and down, pushing the snow to the side and up over the guard rails.  The result is a high wall of ice on each side that prevents cars pulling off the road except in rare places.

But we got lucky on our second night out Aurora-hunting.  We’d found a good parking spot in a dark place on the top of a mountain near Heia. And the cloud cover was broken in places, revealing a few patches of clear starry sky overhead.  But no sign of the Aurora. We gave up after an hour or so and turned the car back towards Tromso.  And then we saw it.  As we neared the bright town lights of Nordkjosbotn we noticed an unusual patch of fluorescent green in the sky that began to change in shape.  This was undoubtedly the Aurora Borealis.  Not in the best of viewing places and it didn’t cover the whole sky, but we were treated to an awesome show nevertheless. A green curtain formed high in the sky and then it appeared to melt and flow down towards the earth before reforming into a bright fluorescent ball.  The show went on like this for thirty minutes before the killjoy clouds closed the door on our view into the cosmos.  We were in high spirits when we returned to Tromso that night.

The next night, our last night in Tromso, had the best weather forecast of the whole week.  A completely cloud-free sky was forecast for several hours during the night.  We felt sure we’d see the Aurora again, more glorious this time with no cloud to obscure it.  And we were determined to be in a perfect viewing spot to see it.  A Tromso local had suggested that the highway to Finland was a good Aurora viewing place.  We consulted our map, noting that Norway ran across the top of both Sweden and Finland, and the northern borders with each seemed to be about three hours from Tromso.  And so the decision was made – we were going to Finland! We crossed the border at about 11pm and pulled off the road in a likely spot with a million bright stars twinkling overhead.  Only the occasional long-distance freight truck roaring past provided any other fleeting illumination.

But we soon discovered there was a terrible price to pay for such a clear sky – insanely cold air that made Tromso seem positively Mediterranean by comparison.  Our car thermometer delivered the cheery news that the outside air temperature had sunk to –25 C.  It was impossible in the clothes we were wearing (and that included four pairs of socks and thermal underwear) to stay outside for more than a few minutes, and even inside the car it was becoming painfully frigid.  Having no experience in such extreme conditions, disconcerting questions started to manifest themselves.  Would our camera mounted on a tripod outside spit the dummy?  Worse, would our car start when we wanted it to?  Being caught out here for the night might be more than a mere inconvenience.  We waited an hour but there was no sign of the Aurora.  By this time we’d had more than enough of –25 C air and so decided to head for home.  In the morning nobody at our hotel reported having seen the Aurora, except for one man who said he’d sighted it at 3.30 am.  This made us feel better – there’s no way we could have waited at our chosen spot in Finland until that time.

The accompanying still photos of the Aurora are ones we took near Nordkjosbotn on the second night.  Over past years people with more sophisticated cameras than our little shirt pocket digital have taken series of closely spaced images of the Aurora and stitched them together to create awesome video records of the Lights.  Many of them are posted on YouTube, including the two videos below.  Click to view them.  If you’re using an iPad, they may or may not be viewable.  But both should be viewable on a PC.

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