Aurora barely perceptible to the naked eye. Photograph by Audrey Carpio
Travel Destinations

In Norway, amidst endless snow and chasing the Northern Lights

Perhaps the most elusive and ethereal of all natural phenomena, the aurora borealis is both the chase and capture of a lifetime. What happens if you blink and miss it?
Audrey Carpio | Feb 11 2019

The moon, still fat from its super blood wolf celestial orgy two nights earlier, was not a good portent for viewing the aurora borealis this night. We were in Skjervoy, Norway, a small fishing island 380 km into the Arctic Circle, and one of several picturesque places in the country to catch the great dancing light show in the sky. Having done basic research, I came knowing that I had to manage my expectations—the northern lights was a natural phenomenon and not a circus act. Travellers have come from afar only to be disappointed by uncooperative weather, cloudy skies, or a weak aurora disguised as thin gray wisps. The weather app on my phone had been predicting snow and clouds for most of the six nights we were in Skjervoy, but I refused to think that I had pulled my seven-year-old daughter, who had barely recovered from the flu, out of school and dragged her on a tiring 24+ hour journey for a no-show.

Reindeer slay! Photograph by Audrey Carpio 

The day we drove up from Tromso—Norway’s gateway to the Arctic and an enchanting city on its own—the snow was coming down hard. Everything was white: the roads, the frozen lakes, the mountains which faded into the sky, beyond which the White Walkers were most likely gathering. The January wintertime landscape in these parts is both relentlessly brutal and otherworldly, with daytime consisting of a few hours of indirect, magical light. At around 8:30 am, dawn starts off as a deep violet, brightening into a pale blue with fringes of pink haze that bathes the mountain peaks, colours I’ve only seen in Instagram filters. By 1:30 pm, twilight sets in, or early onset happy hour, as I see it. The long Polar Night was receding, and the sun—that beastly ball of fire which we so much take for granted in the tropics—was creeping up ever so slowly again.

Daylight in Skjervoy. Photograph by Audrey Carpio

With the snow storm on our first night in Skjervoy, an aurora sighting was out of the question. A clear and cloudless sky is the first requirement for seeing the lights. Second is darkness. City lights and a strong moon can drown out an aurora, so hunters would often have to drive somewhere less densely populated to get an unobscured view. Last and most important however is the strength of the aurora. If there’s intense solar activity going on, an aurora can outshine the clouds, city lights, and even a full moon. All in all, it’s difficult to predict what you can expect until the night itself. There are particularly scientific and nerdy websites and apps that track auroral activity around the world in real-time, but these don’t really help when you’ve planned your trip a year in advance.

Northern Norway isn’t just about the aurora, and we tried to make the most of the short daylight hours by exploring the environs. In Tromso, we joined the Sami reindeer tour, which gave us a small but fascinating look into the lives of this ethnic group. The Sami, an indigenous people found in parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia, are traditionally nomadic reindeer herders. While listening to our Sami guide sing a yoik—a deeply personal form of musical expression that evokes a person or place, I only then made the connection that the opening track of Frozen—the wordless chanting that sounds like nanana heya—was a yoik, and that Kristoff was indigenous, yet also white (insert mindblown emoji here). After we fed some 300 wild reindeer who were only penned in during the winter, and gone sledding with a few particularly stubborn ones, the tourists crowded into a cozy tent with a blazing fire and supped on reindeer stew. I had the vegetarian option.

Humpback whale breaching. Photograph by Gutsy Tuason

The second night, the aurora predictor said it was a GO. I let my husband Gutsy be on the lookout while I stayed warm indoors. Our lodge was situated along a protected cove, with a mountain on one side and not a lot of interference from manmade illumination, so all we had to do was step outside and we’d have a fantastic vantage point. But there was that moon. When I got the signal—a snowball on the windowpane—I put on the outer half of my winter combat layers and waded through knee-deep snow to find a good spot for my tripod (an absolute requirement for photographing auroras). I couldn’t see anything remotely aurora-like, just a few thin wispy gray streaks. But when I took a photo, the signature green billows magically appeared on the screen. I immediately thought, has it all been a lie?

Of course, having done basic research, I remembered reading that the human eye is unable to detect faint colors at night. A good DSLR camera’s sensor will always have a more dynamic range of vision, and along with long exposures and super high ISOs, the camera will capture all the light we cannot see. What many people ultimately post on social media is, well, art.

Sami guide performs a joik. Photograph by Gutsy Tuason 

The next day we booked a whale-watching tour and spent the brief but glorious daylight hours sailing through fjords, following orcas and humpback whales as they cruised for herring. There were a few zodiacs out there with some crazy people jumping in the frigid waters to swim with the orcas (my husband was one of them). On a side note, I was surprised to find whale meat on the menu in some restaurants, possibly aimed at tourists. Norway, Iceland, and Japan are three countries that still practice commercial whaling, defying an international ban. The Norwegian government has been trying to hipsterfy whale meat to a younger market, but the Norwegians aren’t biting.

The aurora started off tentatively that night. A vague streak rising from behind the mountain, or a single green beam falling across the sky. Though I was comfy in my Uniqlo x Alexander Wang thermals, my extremities were starting to freeze in the -12°C temps. Waiting outdoors in the snow, squinting up into the darkness, I couldn’t help but wonder what it was about the frostbitten Norwegian landscape that made some people want to burn down churches. The timeless lyrics of “Freezing Moon,” the hit song from Mayhem, Norway’s most notorious black metal band, came to mind: Everything here is so cold / Everything here is so dark (sung in a voice that sounds like Satan gargling), Diabolical shapes float by / Out from the dark.   

Early civilizations thought of the aurora as supernatural omens. Indigenous tribes saw the spirits of their ancestors. In Norse mythology, the lights shone from the shields and armor of the Valkyrie, female warriors who chose who would live or die in battle. The scientific explanation is terribly complex, but basically, the sun is very hot and explosive, and its flares reach the Earth as solar wind. The Earth’s geomagnetic field protects it from these charged particles, deflecting them toward the north and south poles, where the field is weakest. These charged particles, mostly electrons, collide with gases in the atmosphere, causing them to emit light in green and purple sheets. Me, I like to think of the aurora as intergalactic planetary bat signals, from another dimension.

Eye of the geostorm. Photograph by Gutsy Tuason

I had returned indoors to warm up with a polar beer when I heard someone from outside exclaim, “Oh my God! It’s the end of the world!” Taking that as a sign of some powerful auroral activity, I went to wake up Tica and help her struggle, half asleep, into layers of winter gear. “You just missed it,” Gusty said when we finally arrived, 15 minutes later. It turned out that the global geomagnetic activity at that moment was at Kp5, indicating a geomagnetic storm of the first level. The classic aurora of your imagination—dancing, dripping, drifting lights, sweeping the entire sky above, shimmying in acid green and purple haze—and I missed it. The lights kicked up again after half an hour, and I did see some Van Gogh swirls and genie twirls, but the main fireworks display had come and gone. The next few nights, the activity got weaker and weaker until we were left, once again, with a pitch-black Norwegian sky.