What Are the Northern Lights?
The Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) are the result of the collision of charged particles ejected by the sun with the Earth’s atmosphere. Their color depends on whether the particles collide with oxygen (green), nitrogen (blue) or other molecules in the atmosphere, and this is different in different parts of the world. In Norway, the color is mostly green.
The best places to see the Aurora Borealis are in the Northern Lights Zone, a band which circles the Earth around the magnetic North Pole, changing its position slightly from night to night. Your best chances of seeing the Aurora are on a clear moonless night, around the time of the new moon (ראש חודש), far from the city lights.
The best time of year to see the Aurora Borealis is the late winter, February or early March, when the nights in the northerly latitudes are still long and the milder spring weather is not far off. During the summer the nights at these latitudes are either very short or non-existent.
The Aurora Australis is the corresponding phenomenon near the South Pole, but the only place you can see it from is Antarctica, which is much colder, much further away and much more expensive to get to. Also, there are no hotels and you will have to pitch your tent on the ice shelf, with the penguins and leopard seals.
The year 2013 is expected to be the peak year of the 11-year solar cycle, so the Aurora should be quite impressive then. Start making plans now, otherwise you’ll have to wait until 2024.
Tromsø (pronounced trum-zeh), a charming little town of 60,000 in Norway some 300 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle and 2,000 kilometers south of the North Pole, is probably the best base for a comfortable Aurora Borealis expedition, because:
First, though the Northern Lights Zone moves around, Tromsø is almost always inside it, often right in the middle.
Second, thanks to the Gulf Stream, Tromsø is relatively “warm,” with an average February temperature of -5ºC (23ºF). In nearby Kiruna in Sweden (a bit further south than Tromsø), the average February temperature is -13ºC (9ºF). No wonder the Ice Hotel is in Kiruna and not in Tromsø.
Inland locations at these latitudes in Europe and North America are typically quite a bit colder. Barrow on Alaska’s north coast is only a little further north than Tromsø; its average February temperature is -27ºC (-17ºF). Yakutsk, a city of 200,000 in Russia, is 700 kilometers south of Tromsø, and its average February temperature is -34ºC (-29ºF).
Finally, even if it’s cloudy or snowing in Tromsø, the weather is often much better a short (1-2 hours) drive from the coast, over the mountains, where your chances of seeing the Aurora are greatly improved.
The Tromsø tourist office seems unable to resist calling the city the “Paris of the North.” The only explanation I have for this is that none of their copywriters has ever been to Paris.
When you’re not hunting the Aurora, you can go dog-sledding or mediocre-museum hopping, or just take long scenic walks through the delightful snow-covered streets. As for shopping, everything is Norway is very expensive; food too, and even gasoline for the rental car you probably don’t need. To be honest, there really isn’t a whole lot to do in Tromsø.
The tourist season in northern Norway is all year round, so plan and reserve early.
Getting to Tromsø
You can fly to Tromsø (TOS) from Oslo (OSL) and some other Norwegian cities, or you can travel in style, by the Hurtigruten coastal steamer. It’s worth spending a relaxing day or two cruising along the very scenic Norwegian coast, leisurely taking in the islands and the fjords on the way, either before or after staying in Tromsø. The ships make short stops along the way and you can get off to explore.
The newer ships on the Hurtigruten line, for example the MS Trollfjord, are comfortable well-appointed cruise ships, with a lounge where you can watch the scenery go slowly by while sipping your favorite hot drink. Avoid if you can ships like the older MS Nordstjernen or MS Lofoten, which are more of a cross between a fishing trawler and a ferry.
Hurtigruten runs a photo contest for which the first prize is an end-to-end cruise for two.
Hunting the Aurora
Seeing the Aurora is a hit or miss proposition. You need a clear cold night, a good, energetic and experienced guide and you need luck; even with all of these, success is NOT guaranteed.
Don’t try to save money by renting a car and driving around all night looking for the Northern Lights, even if you’re comfortable with driving on snow. The guides know the best places and update each other by phone throughout the night, telling each other what the weather is like and where there have been sightings. You can’t compete with that. The good guides will take you all the way to the Finnish border and even across if need be; this is why they ask that you bring your passport along.
Arctic Guide Service is headquartered in the Rica Ishavshotel, right next to the Hurtigruten dock. Reservations are recommended but not required; you can just show up with your credit card. They send out as many fully-equipped (with a bathroom) buses as they need. We found their guides to be very friendly and helpful. After an unsuccessful try near Tromsø, they took us all the way to the Finnish border, where the temperature was -10ºC (14ºF), but we were rewarded for our forbearance with an absolutely spectacular hours-long display. The guides also took pictures of people with the Aurora in the background and posted them on Facebook the next day. Altogether the “expedition” took about 8 hours. We were very pleased.
Guide Gunnar offers all sorts of “polar” experiences, in addition to Northern Lights chasing. It’s a one man show, and Gunnar requires reservation and payment long in advance. We found him to be rather unfriendly and reluctant to heat his van (which does not have a bathroom). But he too found the Aurora, not very far out of Tromsø so our early morning ride back was short, and he later sent us pictures he took that night. It was a successful night out, but still, we were less pleased with Gunnar.
Photographing the Aurora
The Aurora in real life is somewhat less bright and the colors less saturated than the pictures suggest. The good news is that if the Aurora looks good, the pictures will look fantastic!!
You will need a tripod, cable release (or equivalent) and a camera that lets you:
- use a wide angle lens with an effective (after accounting for the lens factor for APS-size sensors) focal length of 35mm or less; less is more
- turn off the automatic flash
- turn off autofocus and set the focus to infinity – better to just under infinity, so you can include houses and trees lit up by the Aurora in the picture
- set the ISO to 800 or 1600 (but not higher – already at 1600 you will probably be getting a lot of noise)
- set the white balance to daylight
- set the metering to manual
- set the shutter speed to 10-30 seconds (take a few shots and experiment to get it right – if the Aurora is moving rapidly your shots will be blurred)
- set the aperture to as wide as the lens can open
- remove all filters (including daylight and UV)
Don’t try to get by without a tripod. It’s a waste of time.
Getting a picture with people in the foreground and the Aurora in the background is tricky. It’s the familiar story with flash photography — you have to get two exposures right: the foreground and the background. Use the flash (manual mode) to light the people, calculating the exposure yourself beforehand (based on the GN and distance), and the long shutter to get the Aurora in the background. The people will have to keep still for the entire exposure. You probably won’t get it right the first time, so experiment.
If you are lucky enough to see the Aurora from the Hurtigruten or other ship, remember that the ship is always moving (pitching and yawing) even when it’s docked, so set a faster shutter speed to offset this. Experiment, experiment, experiment …
Michael Reichmann’s Luminous Landscape site has several articles about photographing the Aurora, of which I recommend two:
They all photographed the Aurora in North America (Yukon and Alaska), where it is much colder than in Tromsø, and so they had to take special measures to protect their cameras and batteries.
Kosher Eating in Norway
There are no kosher restaurants in Norway, and few vegetarian ones, and none at all in Tromsø.
But the kosher food situation is not hopeless. The Orthodox community in Oslo publishes a kosher list. As the rabbis in Norway are not as strict as those in Jerusalem, their list includes many items available in most supermarkets. We brought a small pot and frying pan with us, and did quite well for ourselves, though we ate a lot of fish, much more than we usually do. For Shabbat, we ate cold foods; the only thing we had that was hot was the water in our thermos. Not wonderful, but we survived.
Contact Hurtigruten about the possibility of kosher meals. Our cabin didn’t have refrigerators or electric kettles, but we were able to fill a thermos with hot water in the cafeteria, and we left a bag with food on the railing outside our porthole, where we could keep an eye on it.
Tromsø is the site of the world’s northernmost university, botanic garden, brewery and mosque. It is not the site of the world’s northernmost synagogue (which is in Murmansk, Russia), or any other synagogue for that matter.
Norway’s Jewish History
The established church in Norway is the traditionally anti-Semitic Lutheran church (Martin Luther was the author of the Jews and Their Lies, a hate-filled diatribe that for centuries set the tone for the Lutheran churches’ attitudes toward Jews), which ensured that Jews were banned from settling in Norway until the democratic reforms of the mid-nineteenth century, in 1851.
During World War II, Germany invaded Norway and deported most of Norway’s tiny Jewish community to the Nazi death camps. The roundups were carried out by Norwegians, not by Germans. Few returned. After the war, the leading Nazi collaborators were executed and the Norwegians were temporarily overcome with feelings of guilt and sympathy toward the Jewish people. Holocaust memorials were erected in Oslo and Tromsø, from where 17 Jews had been deported with the full cooperation of the local police. The Tromsø memorial is near the Roald Amundsen statue across from the tourist information office. None of the official tourist publications mentions its presence. We didn’t know it was there and only found out about it after we returned home.
More recently, Norway has become an ultra-liberal center of multiculturalism, promoting all the fashionable causes of the lunatic left, of which the most enduring is anti-Semitism disguised as anti-Zionism. Tromsø mayor Arild Hausberg recently called for a boycott of Israel in the aftermath of the Mavi Marmara incident, even participating in demonstrations for the cause of so-called “world peace” which Israel has been so energetically undermining.
In 2012, on the 70th anniversary of one of the deportations, the Norwegian police issued a belated apology. Ten months earlier, Prime Minister had apologized. Maybe something is changing in Norway, but overall, Norwegian society remains unremittingly anti-Semitic, despite official protests to the contrary. Kosher slaughter of animals is illegal (the anti-Semitic laws outlawing kosher slaughter date from even before the Nazi occupation) and circumcision is under constant threat of being outlawed. The only reason this has not yet happened is because of political correctness — the fear of offending Norway’s growing and increasingly militant Muslim population. Norway’s Jewish population, on the other hand, is in precipitous decline.
Dressing the Part
Staying warm is a number one priority. Dress in layers. And more layers.
Outfitters We Used
- L.L. Bean — outerwear and underwear
- Sierra Trading Post — socks for the far north
- Mukluks — the world’s warmest boots
Did I mention that you should dress warmly?
Our Itinerary (February 2012)
We flew to Oslo via Vienna and stayed the night in an airport hotel (Scandic Oslo Airport). The next morning, we flew on to Bodø (about an hour’s flight), where we stayed at the half-empty Bodø Vandrerhjem Hostel, which has a communal kitchen and dining room (very convenient), a short walk from the Hurtigruten dock and in the other direction, the rather undistinguished commercial area. The next afternoon, we boarded the Hurtigruten MS Trollfjord for the 23-hour trip to Tromsø. We stretched getting to Tromsø over several days because we wanted to allow for disruption by bad weather.
It snowed almost every day we were there, but the temperature never dipped below -1ºC (30ºF) and we saw the Aurora both times we went out.
We returned from Tromsø in one day via Oslo and Vienna, three flights altogether.