There were two holidays this past week, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. I had never heard of these holidays actually, but in Austria, and in most of Europe, they are official holidays; schools and even some universities have the entire week off. At my university, we had just the two days off, which happened to fall on Wednesday and Thursday. Since I don’t have classes on Fridays or Mondays, that meant a six-day weekend for me!
So, I went to Norway! It really wasn’t this spontaneous last minute decision. I’ve actually been planning it for several months now because my boyfriend found a cheap flight from the US to Norway, and I knew I had a few days off to go meet up with him. We spent a couple days in Oslo, and then flew up to Tromso for the rest of the week. Norway was so fun and so beautiful that I don’t feel like it would do it justice to try to cram everything we saw and did in one post. So, I’m going to make two posts highlighting the two most unique experiences we had. This one is about the night we saw the northern lights.
The red arrow is pointing to Tromso. We were in the Arctic Circle!
I actually learned a little about the way the northern lights work in physics class last year. (Thanks, Dr. MT!) Long story short, the sun emits these solar flares that travel through space at thousands of miles an hour; they are then deflected by our Earth’s magnetic field, which creates the Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights. The reason you have to go so far north to see them is the closer you are to Earth’s magnetic poles, the more visible they are. The circumstances have to be just right, though. There are predictors that look at the solar activity and the weather and tell you what your chances are for seeing the lights on any given day. They tell you to either go, wait, or try. On the day that we we went, the forecast said “try.”
To see the northern lights, the sky needs to be as dark and as clear as possible. That’s why they are most visible in October when the nights are getting longer and cooler, but there is not a lot of snow yet, and in March when the various snow storms are clearing up, but the sky is still dark. Tromso gets 24 hours of sunlight in the summer, so during that time, they are impossible to see with the naked eye.
We were visiting during the first week of November, and unfortunately, Tromso had just gotten it’s first snowfall. That means we barely missed the ideal viewing period, but we were treated with the views of tall snowcapped mountains and a beautiful wintry landscape. The sky was cloudy, and it was raining and snowing most of the time we were there, so that’s why we decided to go on a northern lights “chase.” These tour companies drive for hours to get away from the city’s light pollution while seeking ideal weather conditions so people can have a better chance of seeing the lights.
We got on the tour bus at 6:30 pm and hit the road. I had no idea where we were going, but we drove for at least a couple hours in the dark and away from the city lights. There was a tour guide leading the group who told us some of the history and science of the lights, but after that, everyone sat silently and waited patiently. I remember seeing mountains of snow outside the window and a bright full moon, which was also to our disadvantage. When the moon is bright, it makes it even more difficult to see the lights.
Once we got off at our first stop, we walked down a steep slope that lead to large flat stones scattered across the ground surrounding a brilliant glittering lake. Everyone shuffled down excitedly anticipating what would come next.
It was actually quite anticlimactic, though. I think I was expecting to get down to the lake and see a sky of magnificent greens and blues, but I saw nothing. Well, not nothing. Don’t get me wrong, it was still beautiful. The moon was so bright and I could see it’s reflection so clearly in the lake, but there were no northern lights.
We waited out there for about an hour in the freezing cold looking around waiting for a glimpse of the lights. I wanted to see them so badly that I could have sworn there were green streaks in the sky at one point, but when I blinked, all I saw were gray clouds. I eventually got so cold that I went back to the bus to warm up for a few minutes, but as soon as I was about to head back out, I saw the rest of the group getting back on the bus. No one had seen anything, and according to the guide there was no activity in the sky, so we were off to our next stop.
We drove for a while in silence and I dozed off a little bit just as the tour guide’s voice came up on the intercom and said “Welcome to Finland!”
I opened up Google Maps, and sure enough, we were on the other side of the border.
This time, when we got off at our second and final stop, it was much colder, and the snow was deeper. We walked down a snowy path until the guide told us to stop, and then just stood up and looked at the sky once again. The moon was even bigger and brighter than before, but it was reflecting on the snow this time instead of a lake. There also seemed to be less clouds in the sky. The tour guide had been doing a really good job at managing our expectations the entire night. She kept telling us how unpredictable the “green lady” was and by the time we got off in Finland, I was really not expecting to see the northern lights that evening.
We stood there for a few long minutes in the snow, and as soon as I started thinking about heading back to the bus, everyone gasped in astonishment. I looked up, and there was a huge green streak in the sky! It was so bright and so green, that it couldn’t be mistaken. I even blinked a few times, and it was still there. It started to fade after a few minutes, but was soon followed by another green light that formed a sort of loop over on the opposite side of the sky. That one lasted a few minutes too, and then faded again. The last flash I saw was on the horizon and was more of a horizontal streak. It soon faded as well, and the sky was black and gray once again.
We spent about ten minutes looking up in amazement as Lady Aurora filled the night sky. My face was numb from the cold, or from smiling, or maybe a little bit of both 🙂
The tour guide snapped a few pictures, and I tried too, but I was so excited just to see them that I only got a couple. I’m glad I didn’t waste my time trying to get pictures, though, because mine weren’t near as good as the professionally taken ones. See for yourself:
Photo taken by me on my iPhone:
Photo taken by our tour guide at Arctic Guide Service with fancy camera:
I think the best part of the night was everyone’s energy–the way everyone gasped when the lights appeared and the warmth in their smiles as they turned to hug their loved ones.
We waited a while longer, but it looked like Lady Aurora wasn’t going to come out again. So, we walked back to the bus, had some hot chocolate and cookies, and talked for a while. Once the hot water ran out, everyone got back on the bus and soon we were back on the road from Finland to Tromso. At 2 am, everyone got off the bus still jittering with excitement, and walked their separate ways down the small streets of Tromso.