Auroras in the Arctic Circle 

As a last hurrah to end my semester studying abroad, my friends and I decided to head up to Tromsø, a Norwegian town located in the Arctic Circle.

In Tromsø, we were closer to the North Pole than France! 

We spent the first day exploring around downtown Tromsø, shopping for souvenirs, and visiting their local Christmas market. By the time 2pm rolled around, the sky was completely dark; it was absolutely crazy to see! We also stopped to grab some hotdogs, and we bought Norwegian groceries to make ourselves dinner for the Friday and Saturday we were in Norway.  

Iconic Scandinavian hot dogs from a food cart in downtown Tromsø made of reindeer and beef. This picture was also taken at 2:30pm. 

We woke up the next day bright and early to cook ourselves breakfast and then we rented ice skates at a local outdoors store in downtown Tromsø. We walked uphill for thirty minutes to Prestvannet Lake which by this point in the year has been completely frozen over! The ice was at least 10 cm (about 4 inches) thick, and there were dozens of Norwegians skating on the ice. A group of college aged students played hockey in one corner of the lake and speed skaters of all ages zoomed around the perimeter of the lake. While some parents taught their kids how to ice skate, parents with younger children opted to glide nonchalantly across the ice pushing a stroller, baby in tow. Norwegians are exposed to ice even before they learn to walk! Even weirder, every once in a while, a person on a bicycle would zoom across the ice instead of biking around the lake. 

This time of year, Tromsø experiences the Polar Night where there is light for only a couple of hours in the day. Even then, the sun is too low to see it above the horizon, so there is a permanent sunset and sunrise at the same time. This casts some of the most gorgeous colors across the sky. Once it started getting too dark to safely skate (which was around 2:30pm), we returned the skates and grabbed some authentic Norwegian lunch.  

The breathtaking colors of the Polar Night. For reference, this picture was taken at 12:30pm, but it looks like it could be 5pm. 

Afterwards, we headed to Fjellheisen: a cable car located on the mainland that takes you halfway up the Tromsdalstinden Mountain and provides a good viewpoint of the city. We spent that time going aurora hunting— they were not too difficult to spot!  

The city lights of Tromsø from the top of the Fjellheisen. 

The Northern Lights, or the Aurora Borealis, are formed through the bombardment of solar radiation with the Earth’s atmosphere. The Sun releases charged particles called solar winds from its upper atmosphere or corona. The Earth’s magnetosphere protects the Earth from these charged particles like a shield; however, some of these charged particles are trapped in the Magnetosphere’s Van Allen Belts and are funneled towards the poles through the Earth’s magnetosphere. These ions then collide with particles in the Earth’s atmosphere causing polar auroras.  These interactions usually occur at a height between 90-120 km, and the color of the aurora is dependent on what altitude and what atoms the solar winds collide with. In the North, the Polar Aurora is called the “Aurora Borealis”, and in the Southern Hemisphere, it is called the “Aurora Australis”. 

Because of how the Polar Auroras are created, they are largely dependent on the Sun’s activity. The Sun cycles every 11 years between solar max (where solar activity is at a maximum) and solar minimum (where solar activity is at a minimum). Fortunately for me, the Sun is approaching its Solar Max in 2024, so we are approaching an increase in solar activity— i.e. we are more likely to encounter the Aurora Borealis! While technically they are happening all the time, they can only be seen when it is dark enough, so ideal conditions are during the Winter month nights when there are no clouds in the sky and very little light pollution. Additionally, the Northern Lights only exist at high latitudes, and because of Tromsø’s location in the Arctic circle, Tromsø is an ideal location for potentially spotting them! 

The first time seeing them was invigorating. Early in high school, I attended a NASA camp where I designed my own NASA mission centered around heliophysics and the Van Allen Belts. I spent the week-long camp learning anything and everything I could about the phenomenon; I was completely hooked. This camp (and the topic) kickstarted my entire engineering career and fascination of space. To see these in person, my heart would not stop beating at a mile a minute. I couldn’t help but smile, laugh, and dance with my friends in the night.  They would appear suddenly in undulating lines streaking across the sky growing in strength and color over time. They would shimmer and dance amongst the stars, and then they would disappear just as quickly as they appeared. As we hiked up the mountain, we found a secluded valley that blocked out the lights from the city. We laid on a frozen lake and spent time watching the auroras. At one point, the entire sky above us was covered in them. It was mesmerizing. Not to be dramatic, but the Northern Lights are the culmination of my career and seeing them was the perfect send off to this semester. This trip will go down as my favorite trip this semester. 

The Aurora Borealis from my phone camera.

A Flight to See the Northern Lights

Only the most determined Georgia Tech-Lorraine students make it to see the northern lights during the semester, and Karsten and friends to the opportunity of a four-day weekend to make the trek up to Norway! Check out his blog for the beautiful photos!

Monday, November 11, 2019 | Written by Karsten

Pretty early in the semester, someone mentioned potentially going to Norway over the four-day weekend in November. While that was a very long time away and many trips away, I was interested, so I began to do research on places to go. The most obvious place would be to go to the biggest city, Oslo. However, I didn’t find anything too unique to do there, so I moved my search further north. This is where I found Tromsø. Tromsø is located in the Arctic Circle and is home to the northernmost university and is the northernmost city in the world – and is one of the best places to see the Aurora borealis. I decided that this was where I wanted to go. However, I made the mistake of waiting to see who all else would want to come along, and therefore didn’t actually book the trip until late October, which made the trip more expensive than anticipated. However, it was still cheaper than being able to see the northern lights at any other time due to living in the southern United States. Two people ended up coming with, so we packed our bags and headed to Tromsø.

We walked out of the Tromsø airport at about 12:45 PM and the sun was already beginning to set. The position of the sun was only the second craziest thing about this trip. We knew the sun would only be up for about five hours each day, but during those five hours, it was barely above the horizon and therefore provided five golden hours of sunlight—a photographer’s dream. However, what isn’t a photographer’s dream is it being 15 degrees out, meaning everyone is bundled up and lenses fogs up almost immediately. We didn’t have many plans for the day, so we went and found lunch while the sun fully set, and then went to find our Airbnb to take a short nap. Once we were rested up a little bit, we took the cable car up Fjellheisen, a mountain on an island adjacent to Tromsø. This provided magnificent views of the city and is the cheapest way to potentially see the northern lights. We lucked out: while overlooking the city lights, a bit of northern lights came out to play. After taking the best hand-held pictures we could manage, we headed back to our Airbnb and called it a night.

The next morning, we went to the Polaria Aquarium and saw their featured animal, the seal. From there, we went and found food, coffee, and $1 ice cream. I recreated my ice cream picture from Banff last winter, as apparently I enjoy eating ice cream in below freezing temperatures. We had a northern lights tour planned for the evening, so that was where we headed next. The Chasing Lights Minibus Tour took us to a different adjacent island, Ringvassøy, and set us up with tripods, thermal suits, a stew dinner, and a fire. Because we were away from the city, we could see the northern lights even better when they decided to come out, and luckily for us, they came out dancing. At about 11 PM, after we had been out in near zero-degree weather for three hours, the Aurora borealis came out so strong that we were able to see more than just the usual green color. We saw red and yellow dance around as well. Thanks to our knowledgeable guide, we knew that these were the strongest that the northern lights could be, and it was absolutely stunning. Not too long after this, we got back on the bus and headed back to the city and then back to our Airbnb, which we arrived back at 3 AM.

The final day wasn’t too eventful, unless you count getting ice cream again as eventful. Our flights left at about 7 PM, so we left the Airbnb at about noon and just wandered around and eventually sat down at a cafe to waste the rest of the time playing cards. After that, we just had the long journey back. When I say long, I mean it—we ended up traveling there and back in slightly less time than we were actually in Tromsø, and we were in Tromsø for about 55 hours. I think the total travel time was about 40 hours, but the lengthy journey was so worth it. Seeing the northern lights was a dream come true and a truly unforgettable experience, and I hope that I’ll be able to see them again some day soon.