Monday, January 24, 2011

A Trip to Tromso - 17 minute video

...a 17 minute video summary of the trip to northern Norway, January 6th - January 18th, 2011
Click here

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Green Ghosts - The Aurora from Tromsø, Norway

      It's 11 p.m., and Marit's son Hronn bursts into the living room where we are all sitting around talking and drinking, with "have you decided not to watch the aurora tonight?"
      Within seconds everyone is in the entry hall throwing on jackets, slipping stocking feet into boots that are only partly laced and tied off so that they can be put on with firefighter speed. We hurry out into the dry, cold night air, fumbling with gloves, stocking caps, and hoods. The thermometer reads -11 degrees, but that's Celcius. The "real" temperature is 12 degrees Fahrenheit, and you can feel the outer edges of your nostrils getting crinkly.
      The sky is a very dark blue-black except over the island of Tromsø where a few low-lying clouds are reflecting back the orange glow of the lights of the town. Extending from behind the sharp ridge of Storstein that rises sharply behind the last row of houses and across the entire span of sky, is a ghostly, faintly glowing greenish band that looks at first like the disappearing remnants of a contrail left in the wake of a long-gone jet plane. Perhaps it is a high, thin, ice crystal cirrus cloud that marks the outer edge of an approaching low pressure system, glowing the light of the nearby first quarter moon, but as we lift our chins high the cloud begins to glow a bit brighter along the middle. It seems to be gathering itself inward, a gradual metamorphosis into a long, sinuous, ropey looking worm of a shape that begins to writhe, leisurely developing bends as if it were trying to slither across the sky.
      Farther north, up the sound, another greenish cloud fades into visibility, this one like green grassy filaments spread out and stretched off into the distance in the southwest, more or less parallel to the now slowly wavering line.
      We keep looking back and forth across the bowl of the sky, for the horizon to horizon display is too wide to take in all at once. The green ribbon brightens some more over the town of Tromsø while its other end fades almost to invisibility over the mountain ridge. Vertical streaks gradually appear beneath it until it looks like a diaphanous curtain trailing down from the sky, and it begins to move, visibly rippling along its length as if it were being moved by an ethereal breeze.
      In truth, this is exactly what is happening. The Sun continuously ejects tons of ripped apart atoms, protons and electrons away from its surface at more than a million miles per hour. At that rate it takes this electrically charged plasma about three and a half days to get to the Earth. Encountering the powerful magnetic field surrounding our planet, most of it is bent right around the Earth and passes harmlessly on into interplanetary space. Some of those electrically charged particles, caught in the Earth's magnetic field, move rapidly toward the north or south magnetic poles. Colliding with the tenuous upper atmosphere, they make the air molecules glow, somewhat similar to the process inside a fluorescent light.
      Proximity to the Sun has no particular effect on whether or not the solar wind generates aurora. The Earth reached perihelion, only about 91,400,000 miles from the Sun just a few days ago. The main factor is solar activity. When the Sun belches out large amounts of ionized gas or there is an ejection of plasma from the corona of the Sun toward the Earth, it results in spectacular auroral displays about three days later.
      Now the vertical streaks, oscillating gently in the solar wind begin to take on subtle pastel shades of yellow and red, scintillating just a bit along their lower edges. Darker vertical sections travel along the softly glowing wall of aurora, looking vaguely like the shadows of people moving behind a back-lit curtain. It doesn't take a vivid imagination to understand why some Inuit people believed that they could see the spirits of their ancestors moving just behind the northern lights.
      A few minutes later the curtains of light fade about the same time that the long green tendril of light across the sky starts to brighten. As we watch, it begins to move sinuously, writhing itself into bends, then whorls, in places fading then brightening again, the motion of the curves somehow snake-like.
      So entranced and excited we can barely breathe except for guttural gasps and utterances, we stand in the middle of the street, boots squeaking and crunching in the snow as we turn this way and that, trying to take it all in.
      The magic light show begins to fade after about twenty minutes, although we are told that sometimes it continues for hours on end. As we troop back into the house for warm drinks we know that we have seen one of the most amazing wonders of the world.

Saturday, January 8, 2011


January 8

     We arrived in Oslo a little before noon yesterday (6 am EST), and had a five hour layover before the 5:30 flight to Tromsø. Our friends from Bradenton , FL arrived about 4 (an hour after sunset!), and we made the last flight 90 minute together.

      Our Norwegian host Marit and her sister and their sons and wives all met us at the airport with big WELCOME signs, and we went in two cars to Marit's house in Tromsdalen, and as we pulled up in front of the house her son and grandson were waving torches in greeting, and then touching them to fuses, shooting a volley of brightly colored welcoming fireworks into the air! Marit's house is the last house on a street overlooking the harbor....beautiful in the dark with all the Tromsø
city lights reflecting on the water.

      We were all sitting around in the living room when someone came in with the word that the Aurora were active! Of course we all threw on coats, slipped back into shoes (since you remove your shoes at the door when you come in) and hurried out onto the porch. The aurora were indeed putting on a show;it looked like delicate blue-green curtains hanging from the sky, sinuously billowing, slow-motion in the wind. Constantly moving, brightening, fading away, reappearing close by or some distance away, they entertained us and totally entranced us for perhaps 5-10 minutes, and then became fainter and stopped altogether. What a literally awesome display!
We sat around talking until almost 1 am. The house is very warm, but the bedrooms are kept at only about 50 degrees, so the fluffy douvet covers on the bed were welcome, if icy when first slipping in. By the middle of the night they retained so much body heat that I actually wished that the bedroom itself was colder! I slept soundly until about 7:30 this morning, and now at 8:30 I'm the first one up, sitting again in the living room enjoying the lights on the waters of the harbor below. So far, I'm the only one awake.
     I'm told that much closer to noon the sky does lighten a bit, but of course the sun will not rise above the horizon here until late February. 
      The sky began to get a lot lighter by 9:30, eventually looking like the sun was about to come up in the southeast by noon. The rest of the group was all up by 11:00 am, and Marit put out a big spread of many diffferent kinds of lunch meat that included reindeer salami, flatbread, scrambled eggs, herring, pickled beets, orange juice, coffee, and we all sat around the table for over an hour, just talking. I can tell already that it going to be difficult not to eat too much while we're here!
      Shortly after noon the sky was as bright as it gets, a dark twilight gray, and five of us piled in Marit's car, a Skoda built in Czech Republic, and headed to Sentrum, the town center. Bundled in heavy coats and gloves we were well insulated. We parked nearby, since only pedestrian traffic is allowed. Crowds of strolling shoppers picked their way cautiously along icy sidewalks under festoons of Christmas lights and red lanterns criss crossing the crowded streets, looking for post-Christmas bargains in the brightly lit shops in the quickly fading light. Near the waterfront we stopped for drinks in a cafe where customers were enjoying the flames of the fireplace as much as the warmth of companionship. By 2:30 in the afternoon night had returned.

      By dinner time, Marit's house was full of people. Counting sisters and sons, wives, girlfriends, grandchildren, and guests there were an even dozen at the table for dinner, three huge pans of home cooked pizza.
      At 8 in the evening Marit's sister who lives just down the street, called with an aurora alert, and the seven of us remaing in the house hurried to the entry hall, throwing on heavy coats and slipping into boots in a drill that must have resembled the rush of firemen answering the call to a four alarm fire.
Tonight's display was fainter than the previous night, this time a single narrow band stretching across the whole sky from the crest of the steep mountain ridge behind the house across the harbor and disappearing below the opposite horizon ridge line of the island in the west beyond Tromso. We stood outside for 15 or 20 minutes waiting for it to brighten or show some movement like the dancing aurora of the night before, but eventually they simply faded away.

Transatlantic Travel

10:15 pm EST and we've been airborne for 5 hours, which means we're traveling at about 500 mph somewhere over the Atlantic northeast of Newfoundland with another 2,000 miles to go and 4 hours to touch down in Amsterdam. It's 70 degrees below zero outside. This A330 Airbus is a wide body jet with 2-4-2 seating, which means that there are about 250 people aboard. We'll land at 8:00 am local time dragging groggy bodies, still believing that it's only 2:00 am!
Each seat back has its own interactive TV screen, with an extractable armrest controller that allows the selection of perhaps 25 different movies in sevderal languages, an active map that keeps track of aircraft progress or lets you roam the planet. There are 6 different music channels, a number of video games, information in English, French, German, Chinese, and Japanese, and the ability to send email at $2.50 per message.
Even with all the selection, the man across the aisle is watching a different movie on the tiny screen of his Ipod. People are sprawled in an amazing variety of contorted positions, trying to fit tired bodies into small, cramped spaces.
Unlike domestic flights, transoceanic Delta flights offer a very nice dinner service with chicken, pasta, mixed vegetables, crackers, cheese, choice of red or white wine or beer, and a fudge brownie for dessert. An hour out, the lights brighten, and the flight attendants bring around breakfast of an egg mcmuffin and coffee.
It's a few minutes after 8:00 am when we land at Schiphol Airport, the sky is still totally dark, not even a pre-dawn glow. Amsterdam is about fifteen degrees farther north than Richmond, Virginia where the sun rose yesterday at 7:25 a.m. In Amsterdam the sun rose today at 8:45. Although the local clocks are reading 9:30 am now, it's still only 3:30 a.m. in Richmond, and without much sleep, today we'll be tired early! Our KLM flight leaves in an hour. Next stop: Oslo, Norway.

Oslo ...a five hour layover. The airplane flaps extend with a whine, signaling our final approach to the Oslo airport. On the ground the air temperature is 10 degrees, and as we float down toward the runway we can see that the undulating countryside is white. Smooth snow lies on the ground, blurring the boundaries between land and lake. Smooth snow lies on evergreens crowded shoulder to shoulder off into the distance, each branch bearing a load like white cotton, giving the appearance of a stylized Christmas card. Smooth snow spreads like cake icing over every roof, turning houses into models of Kincaid paintings, tendrils of smoke climbing into the still air. A ten foot deep layer of dense white frosty fog has settled in low lying hollows, sliding and curling around and over fields, trees, and houses, giving the whole scene an other-worldly feel.

It's just past noon when the sun reaches its highest point in the sky for the day and starts its descent toward another long night. At midday the angle of the sun makes it feel more like a late Richmond afternoon. Sunset here today is at 3:30 p.m. and it won't rise again tomorrow morning until 9:15.