Part 5 of 6 of my Onsite Chronicles: Europe Edition.
It all started when I was browsing over a coffee table book, while at a friend's house, as I was looking for interesting places to go to while in Europe. One of the countries that were featured in that book was Norway, where I came across a page showing the majestic Aurora Borealis in the Norwegian night sky.
WHAT IS THE AURORA BOREALIS
The Aurora is a natural-occurring phenomenon which happens whenever particles of the solar wind coming from the Sun come in contact with the Earth's atmosphere. There's a more technical explanation, but this is as layman as I can get. Borealis is because this phenomenon happens in the northern hemisphere, usually above the Arctic Circle. If the Aurora occurs in the southern hemisphere, it is called Aurora Australis.
Why the North?
Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, are more commonly witnessed because there are more inhabited islands in the north than in the south. Countries that usually experience this phenomenon include Alaska, Canada, and the Scandinavian countries of Finland, Sweden and Norway. Moreover, since the earth tilts at an angle on its axis, there are certain countries that experience the lights more often than the rest.
Factors that Affect the Occurrence of the Northern Lights
Like any other naturally occurring phenomenon, certain conditions need to be achieved to be able to observe the Aurora Borealis:
- It should be during the night time. This is a no-brainer; the catch is that it should be at the darkest part of the night. A moonless night is the best time to see the stars in all their glory. Fortunately, countries in the northern hemisphere have seasons wherein you can experience up to 24 hours of night time, depending on the month.
- Weather conditions should be at the clearest. There should be no clouds to obstruct the view of the Aurora. There are certain parts of the year where there is less chance of rain; these are the best times to view the northern lights.
- The viewing area should be free from light pollution. Street lights, house lights, and any kind of light on the ground affect the way we view the sky. When in the city, you might notice that you can only see the brightest stars even on a clear sky. Try finding less lit areas, like parks or lakes, to make the night sky a little darker.
- There should be high solar activity within the past couple of days. This one is a bit more complicated. For one, solar storms don't happen every day. In theory, solar activity is affected by the number of sunspots observed in the Sun. And it seems to be a trend that the bigger the size and/or higher number of sunspots, the bigger and/or more frequent the solar storm. Solar storms take a few days to reach the Earth. Of course, the storm should be facing the Earth in order for it to go our way.
This trip was to be made on my last long weekend onsite, during Poland's Independence Day on November 11. Downside of the schedule was that my trip would happen during the full moon, AND it was still the rainy part of autumn. So I had to make the other factors work my way, and for this reason I decided on going as far north as my Schengen visa (and funds) could take me.
Norway was an easy candidate, but the challenge lies in choosing which part of Norway I should go to. Research in the Web took me to two prospective cities, Lofoten and Tromso. The latter won because it is waaaaay further north from the former.
Based on the feedback from my onsite officemates, the cost of living in Norway is quite high. Norway still uses their local currency of the Norwegian Krone, and according to them, Norway is already too rich of a country to need a currency switch to the Euro. Daw. From what I've heard, Norway is rich because it is one of the countries that supply oil to the global market.
Thus, I have to plan accordingly, in such a way that I won't spend too much just to view something that is essentially free.
How to Get There
Norway's flagship carrier seems to be more reliable than France's, and it offers the least amount of stops from Warsaw to Tromso and back. I booked the morning flight from Warsaw to Oslo; travel time took 2 hours. There was a six-hour layover in the Oslo airport, and then the evening flight from Oslo to Tromso; travel time took 2 hours as well. It was already a little over 9 in the evening when I arrived at the Tromso airport.
TripAdvisor and VirtualTourist were the websites I went to for information on where I could stay. Tromso is just a small town, so the accommodations are few and close to each other. I chose the AMI hotel because it offered the lowest rate and that it is a short distance from the bus stop and/or the airport shuttle stop.
Tromso is a tad too small for the Metro, and too far north for the train. The main mode of public transportation is the bus, and a single fare ticket can be reused for a limited time. This being an island, the bus is for when you want to go from one side to the other. The town center is literally at the center of the island, and you can just walk around to see some sights.
Sights to See
Most of the attractions in the town center involve museums that feature documentaries of different Arctic expeditions such as The Polar Museum and Polaria. There are also a number of impressive architectures, including the Arctic Cathedral and the Tromso Public Library.
I was more interested in seeing nature for that trip, so I went around the outskirts of the town to view a botanical garden, a lake park, and yes, even a graveyard.
Daylight and Night time Above the Arctic Circle
One of the things that I had to adjust to, during my visit to Tromso, was the expected amount of daylight within the day. For 2011, the schedule of the start of the Polar Night was on November 26. As I was a couple of weeks early, I was still able to experience a short bit of daylight, albeit for only three hours or so. As Tromso is surrounded by high mountain ranges, the Sun would be visible at around 11 o'clock in the morning, and then would already start to set a couple of hours later. By 3 o'clock in the afternoon, it would feel as if it is already 6 o'clock in the evening (Filipino time). It is said that during the Polar Night, where the Sun is constantly under the horizon, it will be as if it was twilight during the day.
VIEWING THE NORTHERN LIGHTS
There was only a low amount of solar activity during my visit to Tromso, so I wasn't expecting a viewing experience similar to what I've just posted at the beginning of my entry. Still, I was hoping that I catch a glimpse of the Aurora, and to capture it no matter how faint.
Tromso's window to enter within the Aurora belt is during 6 o'clock in the evening, and would last until dawn. For minimal to low solar activity, the area with the highest probability of Aurora is towards the northern part of the sky, but when there is a high amount of solar activity, you will be able to see the Aurora directly above.
There are a lot of package tours available online, where they actually chase the Aurora around the region. Some of the tours are done by land, and the others by sea. The prices were out of my budget, so I decided to monitor the activity in the Web, and go out at the first sign of Aurora waves dancing on the camera's view.
Considering my first experience with the Northern Lights is a relatively faint one, seeing a wave dance right in front of your eyes is still a magical experience. I remember doubting at first if I was actually seeing the Aurora or was it just a cloud of some sort, but after my eyes started to adjust, I was able to see clearly the band of green light streaked across the sky. The movement was subtle, like a ribbon swaying lazily across the wind. It was a sight to behold, and I hope that I get another chance to see it.
- Norwegian Air. Budget flights to and from Norway.
- AMI Hotel. Conveniently located at the outskirts of the town center, around 10 minutes walk.
- Human Flower Project. A feature on the Arctic-alpine Botanic Garden.
- SpaceWeather.com. Here you can monitor the various solar activities as of current.
- Tromso LIVE Northern Lights. Real-time monitoring of the Northern Lights activities over Tromso, Sweden and Finland.