Friday, 31 March 2017

Norway Trip - Part II (Aurora Hunting)

Like I said in the previous post, I'm dropping it like it's hot! :p I've also decided to split the rest into two parts, so it's not too long of a post to read. 

Our aurora hunting in Tromsø happened over two evenings. The first was with our own hired car and the second was with a tour company called 'Aurora Excursions'. We were lucky to see plenty of aurora in the first evening and not much in the second as it was snowing. We highly recommend you do both to increase your chance of seeing more aurora. As you know, to successfully see and capture aurora, you'll need three major factors in decreasing importance; 1) Clear sky with minimal cloud cover, 2) Strong geomagnetic and solar activities (high Kp index, see here), and 3) Have a decent camera and know how to get that shit working!

I'll again show you our routes on my adorable little map, on which the rainbow unicorn pusheen is where we saw the most aurora. I'll explain our experience and some tips and advices for future trips as well as I go. I know it's a lot to read but I think it'll be helpful, so deal with it. ;p
Evening 1
If you remembered the photos we took during the day, there was pretty heavy cloud cover around the islands. The weather forecast was cloudy in the Tromsø region, so we spent some time on the internet deciding where to go. One place that was recommended was Skibotn, but we thought it might be too far to drive and we weren't really confident driving in the dark. We we decided to try somewhere slightly less inland towards Breivideidet because we thought mountain roads might have less cloud and light pollution. That was about 8.30-9 pm, and the Kp index was decent, around 3-4.

The main road leading inland (E8) was brightly lit, and we couldn't really tell if the sky was clear or if it was completely covered by clouds. As we turned up the road to Breivikeidet (Route 91), we realised that it was not really the same as the one on Kvaløya, it had quite a few houses and there were no flat fields that we could see on the sides. We stopped over at the first place with no nearby houses, turned off our car completely to let our eyes adjust to the darkness. It didn't take us long to realise that we could not see a single star and this whole region was covered by high (altitude) clouds. We had another look on our phone for weather update and the map view for the road ahead before deciding to head back and take a chance back on Kvaløya. At least we knew that the mountain pass there definitely has no lights along it and has many potential camping spots.

We also had Ersfjordbotn and the northern part of the island in mind. Our other main concern was the light pollution from Tromsø, which you'll see in some of the photos. The lights were so bright it'll reflect off any low clouds in the area to give a bright orange glow, so it is better to head away from the city and the coast where people live.

As we drove along Route 862, we started seeing a green glow that was moving across the sky just above the mountains. We stopped at a pit stop on the 'wrong' side of the road to check, since we had no bloody idea what to look out for. As we waited, the aurora activity kicked off, it started to appear and danced brightly right above our head. Unfortunately, my camera was not set up properly like I thought, it was doing some stupid fancy noisy reduction HDR shit! So the important lesson of the day: Get Your Camera Working!! Fortunately, the aurora was strong enough to be captured by Graham's phone camera, hence the teaser on FB! Woohoooo!! 

We decided to drive further into the island away from Tromsø for a clearer sky. This time, the aurora didn't appear for at least half an hour, so we had time sitting in the car to get my camera settings right! If you have a Panasonic Lumix TZ camera, make sure you know how to properly turn off the automatic settings to freely access the manual mode, cos I clearly didn't! 

We got tired of waiting in the car and decided to just tank it out in the cold. To our luck, the aurora came back even stronger as soon as we did! So here are some better photos, slightly edited to reduce the blur and increase the contrast a little as it is much better in person. The settings are: ISO 1600-3200, ff 2.8-3.5 and ss 4-10s. Also, please use a tripod, the car bonnet really isn't that stable in the billowing arctic wind...
The massive orange cloud is the result of Tromsø light pollution. There are still some very light clouds but it wasn't obstructing the aurora. Love the reflection on the car bonnet.
So much aurora, so much blur, no tripod, still great! 
Facing away from Tromsø in the direction of Ersfjordbotn.
Alright, this was going crazy, the aurora across the entire sky, we could see it connecting the mountains on each end!
Cloud, what are you doing Dolan! At least it wasn't orange.
Proof that we were there and I did take these photos. I mean, who else wants to put up with not-so-good photos when you can just google search?
We wanted to stay out as late as possible to but we decided to head back around 1.30 am as we had another full day and evening ahead of us. We went home very happy that night! ^^

Evening 2:
Knowing that the weather forecast was snow for the entire Tromsø region in the evening, we didn't have much hope to see or photograph any aurora on our guided tour. However, there was also a geomagnetic storm predicted late in the evening (after 12 am) so we decided to go anyway. 

The Aurora Excursion guys, Hans and Hans were very genuine, they said they couldn't promise aurora but will do their best to provide a pleasant evening outdoor, and they did. They also offered a full refund to anyone who didn't want to go last minute, since it was their last week of tour, the weather was not getting better and the nights were getting shorter and brighter. I even looked up the booking to see if they were lying, and they were not! I'm not going into much detail for this trip since we didn't have to do anything but enjoy a lovely winter evening. We were driven to Skibotn, the other place we thought about going the night before. As it is further inland at the bottom of a valley, it can potentially have a slightly different climate to Tromsø and the islands. There was another tour group at our destination, but we were totally better prepared than them in every way! Muahahahaha So yeah, we recommend these guys! Not putting up their good photos, they look too good compared to mine. Lol!

Due to the very strong aurora activity that evening, we were lucky enough to see some aurora peeking through the heavy snow and cloud cover, but for most of the evening it was just a green glow. We even had a short window of absolutely clear sky where you could see the stars, but it didn't happen in that window. :( This is why I rate Clear Sky above Aurora Activity. When you're this far up north in the arctic circle, you can see the aurora with Kp index < 1 (but > 0 of course)!
Probably the best photo of the aurora taken on the day out of all people on the tour. ;p
Most of the aurora was behind the mountain, which was  then quickly covered by snow clouds. :(
This was the most you could see after the first wave, and no more afterwards.
Bonfire was nice, food and marshmallow were nice, Hans would not stop making hot chocolate! XD Skibotn was also nice in the background, city lights didn't affect the aurora much actually.
This was when the sky cleared up entirely, so Graham just lied there in the snow with his warm suit looking out for aurora. He was also sliding down a small hill in the snow since he was warm and couldn't get wet! 
Taken by Hans, it was really nice despite the lack of aurora. I look super tanned and Graham was reflective. Lol! The thermal suits were definitely worth putting on. I was toasty warm all evening. ^^
Their photo of the aurora, better photo but I had the better aurora. ;)
Hope you enjoyed experiencing the aurora vicariously through us. Again, we'd recommend Tromsø to anyone who's interested in seeing the aurora and trying a lot of outdoor activities. We'd love to come back for some Reindeer, Husky, Cruises and Snowmobile experience. Maybe not cross-country skiing, we're a bit too unfit for that, but snowshoeing maybe.

I know I haven't posted anything of Tromsø city itself yet, so I'll put that up in Part III soon after I've edited some more photos. 

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