Seeing the Northern Lights (this month, Norway)

This item appears on page 36 of the February 2016 issue.
This is subscriber only post.
Get one year of online-only access — only $15!
Below is a sample of the article.
Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

(Part 1 in a series)

Jack and Elizabeth Kaufman of Lake Quivira, Kansas, wrote, “We would like ITN readers to share their experiences in chasing the northern lights (aurora borealis). Where did you go to see them? Did you travel on your own or take a tour? When did you go (month and year)? To glimpse this marvelous show of nature, how long was your wait? How long did they last?” 

Additionally, ITN asked what a person could do to increase the chances of seeing the northern lights, about the costs involved and about any gear or equipment that would come in handy. 

In this issue we’re printing subscribers’ letters about seeing the northern lights in and around, mostly, NORWAY. Next month, we’ll present accounts of seeing them in Iceland and Canada.

 

One of the best venues for watching the spectacle of the northern lights is a ship that spends a lot of time under the auroral oval, the ring-shaped zone of auroral activity that circles the Earth like a halo at polar latitudes. The northern auroral oval varies in latitude somewhat but is generally accessible where it falls in northern Alaska, northern Canada, Iceland and along the coast of Norway. 

Many cruise ships ply the Norwegian coastal waters, but, by far, the line Hurtigruten (US office in Bellevue, WA; 866/552-0371, www.hurtigruten.us) operates the most ships that do so on a daily basis year-round. Its ships visit many ports, large and small, whose residents rely on Hurtigruten for their mail, freight and passenger service.

Wanting to see the northern lights, the rationale my wife, Carolyn, and I used was simply to optimize our time under the auroral oval during the longer winter nights, which would provide a reasonable probability (not guaranteed) of having clear skies. We chose the ship Trollfjord for its 12-day round-trip sailing between Bergen and Kirkenes, beginning Nov. 20, 2014.

As it turned out, Hurtigruten advertised that particular voyage as its “Astronomy Voyage,” complete with a lecturer (John Mason from the South Downs Planetarium & Science Center in England) and astronomy-related tours (at additional cost). 

Although we were independent of that tour, we did benefit from an open public lecture about the aurora and from the presence of amateur photographers on deck with all sorts of advice on how to photograph the phenomenon.

When traveling to NORWAY during their “dark time” of year, one compromise is you miss a lot of the spectacular coastal scenery, although the sunsets and sunrises are wonderfully long and colorful.

We were extremely fortunate to have very clear weather on the outbound portion of our voyage, with the northern lights visible five nights in a row.

Every clear night, we could see a background quiescent greenish glow in the north that varied in altitude depending on the ship’s latitude. Occasionally, at odd intervals, a portion of the glow would intensify and become irregularly active, sometimes sending enormous spikes overhead or producing unusual spiral shapes. 

The appearance of the aurora is strictly a function of solar activity. During periods of high sunspot activity or solar flares or other solar phenomena, the intensity of the solar wind of charged particles raining on the Earth is increased.

Patience was definitely required for successful viewing, since the quiet periods would sometimes last for several tens of minutes at a time, but, in our case, at least, when the action occurred, it was definitely worth the wait. 

On the return trip, the skies did not behave. We could sense the sky’s varying brightness caused by the aurora, but the overcast skies prevented us from seeing any activity in detail.

Be forewarned also that observing on the top deck of a moving ship in the middle of Norway’s winter has its challenges. A hefty ski parka, hood, ski pants and gloves are recommended, if not essential.

Photographing the aurora is a separate topic altogether. Point-and-shoot pocket cameras and phone cameras just will not work. The auroras are very faint and predominantly green, the hue caused by narrow spectral-emission lines of oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere. You will need a several-second exposure and a high ISO setting (800+) on a camera with a fast lens setting (f2.8) and a wide field of view. Certainly, you should use a tripod with a remote cable release or time delay. 

I also recommend consulting the tips offered by astrophotographer Dennis Mammana at www.dennis mammana.com/skyinfo/phototips/skyphoto_aurora.htm.

Before and after our coastal voyage, Carolyn and I found Bergen to be a most interesting port city to explore. We stayed in the Augustin Hotel (www.augustin.no/en), which is just a 10-minute walk from the Hurtigruten pier and a 2-minute walk from a stop on the Flybussen route from the airport. We paid NOK1,075 (near $165) per night for our room.

The wonderful thing about friendly Norway is that English is widely spoken. You may, however, suffer real “sticker shock” at the very high prices for food, alcohol and everything else.

Bob Havlen, Albuquerque, NM 

 

I have taken two trips in search of the northern lights. The first, in January-February 2010 with Natural Habitat Adventures (Boulder, CO; 800/543-8917, www.nathab.com), involved flying to Winnipeg, Manitoba, CANADA, and spending 40 hours (quite fun, actually!) on the “Tundra Train” to Churchill

Although I’m used to winter cold, Churchill was frozen solid. After our first triumphant sightings of the northern lights, even the extra gear that had been issued to us for our evening vigils (in a recycled plexiglass dome) did not suffice to make us forget the discomfort.  

We had been shown a video of the northern lights featuring beautiful colors and patterns, but at the scene we saw only pale-green swirls and moving sheer, curtain-like wisps. I did enjoy this trip, however, for the experience of visiting a far-northern region with its own unique spirit. (In warmer months, Churchill hosts polar bear-viewing expeditions.)

Still keen to see the northern lights in technicolor, I took another trip, this time a NORWEGIAN coastal cruise with Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines (Fred. Olsen House, Ipswich, Suffolk, England; phone +44 0 1473 746167, www.fredolsen cruises.com) in March 2013.

Though I had packed items of clothing adequate for a northern Pennsylvania winter, I found my gear wasn’t heavy-duty enough to permit my taking the major northern lights expedition offered on the cruise, and no gear was available from the cruise line. The optional expedition involved spending several hours in bitter cold and possibly snowy or windy conditions, and it required extra-heavy clothing and boots. 

(On my Churchill trip, we were thoroughly equipped with the necessary garments by the tour company, and I may have assumed that this was always done on northern lights trips.)

All this became irrelevant, however, because in a few days an epidemic of norovirus broke out on board and I was quarantined for five days in a windowless cabin. I heard that many filmy green manifestations of northern lights were viewed from the deck, but I was unable to be present for them.

Beyond choosing an appropriate place and time, don’t consider a sighting a sure thing or worry about what you can do to make happen. How much you will see, if anything at all, is a matter of chance. But — who knows? — you might be the lucky one. 

Dorothy Smith, Meadville, PA 

 

My wife, Jeanette, and I traveled on a 14-night, round-trip cruise between Bergen and Kirkenes, NORWAY, in January 2013 with Vantage Deluxe World Travel (Boston, MA; 888/514-1845, www.vantagetravel.com).

We sailed on Hurtigruten’s MS Nordlyss, which carried freight, locals going from one town to another and tourists like us. The ship stopped in 34 ports each way. Some stops were just 15 minutes, where you did not go ashore, and other stops were long enough to actually take a tour.

The Nordlyss was very comfortable, the food was very good, and we had an excellent Vantage Travel tour guide.

We saw the northern lights five nights in a row. They were marvelous. If you requested it, the ship’s crew would wake you at any time of the night if the lights appeared. We did that, and at 3 in the morning I was out on deck in my sleepwear watching the lights. 

One other highlight of the trip — in Kirkenes, near the border of Russia, we visited the Snow Hotel (www.kirkenessnowhotel.com). The entire hotel and all of the beds and furniture are made of snow and ice.

With a deduction for having taken a previous trip with Vantage, the trip cost for the two of us was $9,200, including tips and parking.

Readers with questions may write to me at hockljm@yahoo.com.

Joe Hockl, Marlton, NJ

 

I had a lifelong dream come true in February 2011 when I went to NORWAY to see the northern lights. 

I live in Florida and thrive on hot weather. My friends thought I was nuts to go and would end up in the hospital due to the cold. My sister, however, lives in New York and loves the cold. She recruited a few northerners to go with us on a Vantage Deluxe World Travel (www.vantagetravel.com) trip.

When we arrived, we realized we could have booked directly with Hurtigruten (www.hurtigruten.us), the ship line the tour company used. Hurtigruten ships go up and down the coast and offer optional tours.

The Hurtigruten staff made announcements when the northern lights were visible. Interested parties got dressed and went out to see the most beautiful rainbows of colors! It was like a lightning ballet. During the two weeks, we saw them several nights. We were very fortunate.

I was totally prepared for the cold — ski pants, heavy boots, down coat, fur hat, gloves, etc.

Would I go back? In a flash (hopefully, a green one)!

Lyn Scanlon, Naples, FL

Next month, northern lights experiences in Iceland, Greenland and Canada.

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

(Part 1 in a series)

Jack and Elizabeth Kaufman of Lake Quivira, Kansas, wrote, “We would like ITN readers to share their experiences in chasing the northern lights (aurora borealis). Where did you go to see them? Did you travel on your own or take a tour? When did you go (month and year)? To glimpse this marvelous show of nature, how long was your wait? How long did they last?” 

Additionally, ITN asked what a person could do to increase the chances of seeing the northern lights, about the costs involved and about any gear or equipment that would come in handy. 

In this issue we’re printing subscribers’ letters about seeing the northern lights in and around, mostly, NORWAY. Next month, we’ll present accounts of seeing them in Iceland and Canada.

 

One of the best venues for watching the spectacle of the northern lights is a ship that spends a lot of time under the auroral oval, the ring-shaped zone of auroral activity that circles the Earth like a halo at polar latitudes. The northern auroral oval varies in latitude somewhat but is generally accessible where it falls in northern Alaska, northern Canada, Iceland and along the coast of Norway. 

Many cruise ships ply the Norwegian coastal waters, but, by far, the line Hurtigruten (US office in Bellevue, WA; 866/552-0371, www.hurtigruten.us) operates the most ships that do so on a daily basis year-round. Its ships visit many ports, large and small, whose residents rely on Hurtigruten for their mail, freight and passenger service.

Wanting to see the northern lights, the rationale my wife, Carolyn, and I used was simply to optimize our time under the auroral oval during the longer winter nights, which would provide a reasonable probability (not guaranteed) of having clear skies. We chose the ship Trollfjord for its 12-day round-trip sailing between Bergen and Kirkenes, beginning Nov. 20, 2014.

As it turned out, Hurtigruten advertised that particular voyage as its “Astronomy Voyage,” complete with a lecturer (John Mason from the South Downs Planetarium & Science Center in England) and astronomy-related tours (at additional cost). 

Although we were independent of that tour, we did benefit from an open public lecture about the aurora and from the presence of amateur photographers on deck with all sorts of advice on how to photograph the phenomenon.

When traveling to NORWAY during their “dark time” of year, one compromise is you miss a lot of the spectacular coastal scenery, although the sunsets and sunrises are wonderfully long and colorful.

We were extremely fortunate to have very clear weather on the outbound portion of our voyage, with the northern lights visible five nights in a row.

Every clear night, we could see a background quiescent greenish glow in the north that varied in altitude depending on the ship’s latitude. Occasionally, at odd intervals, a portion of the glow would intensify and become irregularly active, sometimes sending enormous spikes overhead or producing unusual spiral shapes. 

The appearance of the aurora is strictly a function of solar activity. During periods of high sunspot activity or solar flares or other solar phenomena, the intensity of the solar wind of charged particles raining on the Earth is increased.

Patience was definitely required for successful viewing, since the quiet periods would sometimes last for several tens of minutes at a time, but, in our case, at least, when the action occurred, it was definitely worth the wait. 

On the return trip, the skies did not behave. We could sense the sky’s varying brightness caused by the aurora, but the overcast skies prevented us from seeing any activity in detail.

Be forewarned also that observing on the top deck of a moving ship in the middle of Norway’s winter has its challenges. A hefty ski parka, hood, ski pants and gloves are recommended, if not essential.

Photographing the aurora is a separate topic altogether. Point-and-shoot pocket cameras and phone cameras just will not work. The auroras are very faint and predominantly green, the hue caused by narrow spectral-emission lines of oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere. You will need a several-second exposure and a high ISO setting (800+) on a camera with a fast lens setting (f2.8) and a wide field of view. Certainly, you should use a tripod with a remote cable release or time delay. 

I also recommend consulting the tips offered by astrophotographer Dennis Mammana at www.dennis mammana.com/skyinfo/phototips/skyphoto_aurora.htm.

Before and after our coastal voyage, Carolyn and I found Bergen to be a most interesting port city to explore. We stayed in the Augustin Hotel (www.augustin.no/en), which is just a 10-minute walk from the Hurtigruten pier and a 2-minute walk from a stop on the Flybussen route from the airport. We paid NOK1,075 (near $165) per night for our room.

The wonderful thing about friendly Norway is that English is widely spoken. You may, however, suffer real “sticker shock” at the very high prices for food, alcohol and everything else.

Bob Havlen, Albuquerque, NM 

 

I have taken two trips in search of the northern lights. The first, in January-February 2010 with Natural Habitat Adventures (Boulder, CO; 800/543-8917, www.nathab.com), involved flying to Winnipeg, Manitoba, CANADA, and spending 40 hours (quite fun, actually!) on the “Tundra Train” to Churchill

Although I’m used to winter cold, Churchill was frozen solid. After our first triumphant sightings of the northern lights, even the extra gear that had been issued to us for our evening vigils (in a recycled plexiglass dome) did not suffice to make us forget the discomfort.  

We had been shown a video of the northern lights featuring beautiful colors and patterns, but at the scene we saw only pale-green swirls and moving sheer, curtain-like wisps. I did enjoy this trip, however, for the experience of visiting a far-northern region with its own unique spirit. (In warmer months, Churchill hosts polar bear-viewing expeditions.)

Still keen to see the northern lights in technicolor, I took another trip, this time a NORWEGIAN coastal cruise with Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines (Fred. Olsen House, Ipswich, Suffolk, England; phone +44 0 1473 746167, www.fredolsen cruises.com) in March 2013.

Though I had packed items of clothing adequate for a northern Pennsylvania winter, I found my gear wasn’t heavy-duty enough to permit my taking the major northern lights expedition offered on the cruise, and no gear was available from the cruise line. The optional expedition involved spending several hours in bitter cold and possibly snowy or windy conditions, and it required extra-heavy clothing and boots. 

(On my Churchill trip, we were thoroughly equipped with the necessary garments by the tour company, and I may have assumed that this was always done on northern lights trips.)

All this became irrelevant, however, because in a few days an epidemic of norovirus broke out on board and I was quarantined for five days in a windowless cabin. I heard that many filmy green manifestations of northern lights were viewed from the deck, but I was unable to be present for them.

Beyond choosing an appropriate place and time, don’t consider a sighting a sure thing or worry about what you can do to make happen. How much you will see, if anything at all, is a matter of chance. But — who knows? — you might be the lucky one. 

Dorothy Smith, Meadville, PA 

 

My wife, Jeanette, and I traveled on a 14-night, round-trip cruise between Bergen and Kirkenes, NORWAY, in January 2013 with Vantage Deluxe World Travel (Boston, MA; 888/514-1845, www.vantagetravel.com).

We sailed on Hurtigruten’s MS Nordlyss, which carried freight, locals going from one town to another and tourists like us. The ship stopped in 34 ports each way. Some stops were just 15 minutes, where you did not go ashore, and other stops were long enough to actually take a tour.

The Nordlyss was very comfortable, the food was very good, and we had an excellent Vantage Travel tour guide.

We saw the northern lights five nights in a row. They were marvelous. If you requested it, the ship’s crew would wake you at any time of the night if the lights appeared. We did that, and at 3 in the morning I was out on deck in my sleepwear watching the lights. 

One other highlight of the trip — in Kirkenes, near the border of Russia, we visited the Snow Hotel (www.kirkenessnowhotel.com). The entire hotel and all of the beds and furniture are made of snow and ice.

With a deduction for having taken a previous trip with Vantage, the trip cost for the two of us was $9,200, including tips and parking.

Readers with questions may write to me at hockljm@yahoo.com.

Joe Hockl, Marlton, NJ

 

I had a lifelong dream come true in February 2011 when I went to NORWAY to see the northern lights. 

I live in Florida and thrive on hot weather. My friends thought I was nuts to go and would end up in the hospital due to the cold. My sister, however, lives in New York and loves the cold. She recruited a few northerners to go with us on a Vantage Deluxe World Travel (www.vantagetravel.com) trip.

When we arrived, we realized we could have booked directly with Hurtigruten (www.hurtigruten.us), the ship line the tour company used. Hurtigruten ships go up and down the coast and offer optional tours.

The Hurtigruten staff made announcements when the northern lights were visible. Interested parties got dressed and went out to see the most beautiful rainbows of colors! It was like a lightning ballet. During the two weeks, we saw them several nights. We were very fortunate.

I was totally prepared for the cold — ski pants, heavy boots, down coat, fur hat, gloves, etc.

Would I go back? In a flash (hopefully, a green one)!

Lyn Scanlon, Naples, FL

Next month, northern lights experiences in Iceland, Greenland and Canada.