The Amateur Astronomer Travels, Part 2: Northern Lights

“In a dark time, the eye begins to see.”
–Theodore Roethke

Are you as fascinated by the Northern Lights as I am? Shall we organize an outing?

An Aurora is a “natural light display in the sky”, seen in both the Arctic and Antarctic regions (Borealis and Australis). “Auroras are produced when the magnetosphere is sufficiently disturbed by the solar wind” – all of which is outside our usual perceptions until we see the result, an amazing light show in the sky. If this all sounds too scientific for you, take a look at what all those words mean in this video from NASA.

For a casual and amateur astronomer (myself) the most important factors of an Aurora Excursion would be likelihood of seeing a good display, and comfortable entertainment while waiting between displays.  We would need to go someplace close enough to the pole to have a good chance of encountering a display. (They do not occur predictably.) Some likely locations would be Greenland, Canada, Alaska, Siberia and upper Scandinavia. We also need long, dark nights. All of those locations can provide long nights. The wilderness darkness might be compromised only in Scandinavia. But most of these are also really cold in the winter and there’s not much to do during the day in the tundra. Fortunately there are other options!

Iceland is way north and is actually much warmer than its name implies. (Thank you, Gulf Stream!) It also has an abundance of natural wonders and cultural attractions to provide welcome diversions during the day (while we wait for the dark). There are thermal pools, geysers, glaciers, waterfalls, and hiking trails. You can walk where the tectonic plates of Europe and North America butt against each other. The native horses are compact and unique in the world. (If they are taken off the island they are no longer considered Icelandic horses.) All this and the aurora too!

One other option is the Hurtigruten cruise line, formerly known as the mail boat of Norway. Ships ply the coastal waters even to northernmost Norway, above the Arctic Circle. Days provide visits to small ports for low key entertainment, and nights give you many hours away from city lights to watch for the polar light. The ships vary in the level of luxury provided for passengers. Compared to the most luxurious ships, these would be considered homey and welcoming. No professional entertainment is provided but there is a good-sized library on every ship. All of this encourages you even more to absorb the natural and cultural wonders all around.

When is the best time to see the northern lights? Whenever you can! Photo by Knutklo

When is the best time to see the northern lights? Whenever you can!
Photo by Knutklo

I cannot leave out some important considerations regarding the best time to go. We would want darkness but not extreme cold. Solar storms apparently hit the earth more frequently around the equinoxes, both spring and fall, so that increases the likelihood of sightings. Traveling in October and November would give the benefit of longer nights without the temperatures of full winter. But even with optimizing all the factors there is no guarantee that the aurora will be visible on a given night. Mother Nature does not follow human schedules. But when she is On, she is really On!

I am thinking it is time for me to plan another trip. Let me know if you want to go too (with or without me, no problem)!

For more videos from NASA, look here.

Boundaries divide. Travel unites.

28 April 2016

About Travel Unites

A travel agent since 1994, I want people to get together for greater understanding across boundaries.
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