A Trip to the North

A Trip to the North

This December I got to experience the North, above the Arctic Circle, by taking an adventurous trip to the Finnish Lapland (Rovaniemi), Tromso and Svalbard (the Northern-most populated country in the world). Starting from Bristol, traveled to London and took a connection flight to Rovaniemi, through Helsinki. Here we mushed a husky sled, drove a snowmobile into the forest and on the frozen Kemijoki river, visited the Ranua Wildlife Park and the Snowman World Igloo Hotel, and went snowboarding.

We drove from Rovaniemi to Tromso; where we went whale watching and took a flight to stormy Longyearbyen, in Svalbard. After an aurora tour, plenty of walking in the dark and a snowstorm, we flew back to Tromso, drove to Rovaniemi, flew to Vienna (where we spent a couple of hours sightseeing), and finally headed to Malta for Christmas and New Year.

This is some interesting information I learnt on this trip, some follow up research, and pictures.

Husky Sledding

A dog sled consists of one leader at the front who is trained to recognize human commands (left/right commands) and the other huskies follow naturally, with minimal training. A crucial responsibility of the musher (the person driving the dog sled) is knowing the dogs’ limits. On average, the huskies in the farm we visited are able to run 30 km/day (our ride was ca. 16 km). However, the huskies run even beyond exhaustion, facing risks of hyperthermia unless controlled by the musher.

3 main husky breeds are used for sledding: Greenland huskies, Alaskan huskies, and Siberian huskies and/or malamutes. The height is very important when putting a dog team together: huskies at the back should not be very high because they get back/hip damage from the low sledge ropes. Not to mention that (Siberian) huskies commonly suffer from hip dysplasia.


Some facts about Svalbard:

  • Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, midway between continental Norway and the North Pole;
  • It is the northernmost settlement in the world with a permanent civilian population of ~2,500; 25% of which are researchers that change every year;
  • From October to February, the sun never rises above the horizon, with the only sources of light being the moon, stars and auroras;
  • Temperatures only rise above 0C between June and August when there is 24 hours of daylight;
  • Spitsbergen is the largest and only permanently populated island of the Svalbard archipelago. It is also the largest island in Norway and 36th largest island in the world.
  • Spitsbergen is a free economic zone and demilitarized zone that was used as a whaling base in the 17th/18th century and for coal mining in the 19th century.
  • Spitsbergen has the Svalbard Global Seed Vault; “a fail-safe seed storage facility, built to stand the test of time – and the challenge of natural or man-made disasters. […] represents the world’s largest collection of crop diversity” (CropTrust) (although GMOs are not stored in the vault at this time) (CropTrust).
  • There are Polar bears in Svalbard (with peak breeding time in April). In fact, there’s more Polar bears than people. Because of this, outside the designated ‘safe zone’, one would need to carry a rifle.
  • Svalbard kirke (Svalbard Church) is the world-s most northern church located at Longyearbyen in Svalbard.

The Northern Lights

After extensive aurora hunting (using mainly the Aurora service website), we were lucky to observe the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) 3 times: faintly in Svalbard (due to the weather conditions), on the flight back from Longyearbyen (Svalbard) to Tromso, and in the pitch black forests on the way back from Tromso to Rovaniemi (shown in the images and video). This spectacular phenomenon however does not only occur in the North and can also be seen from the southern hemisphere, where these are called Aurora Australis.

‘Hunting’ and aurora predictions are based on solar storms. In the sun’s core, the 14 million degrees Celsius and high pressure causes the fusion of hydrogen atoms into helium. This nuclear fusion releases energy that goes to the surface of the sun, creating currents called convection cells. Electrical currents of charged gas (plasma) create a magnetic field at the surface that folds and stretches until it breaks. This is a solar storm and reaches Earth within 18 hours. Earth’s magnetic field deflects the storm causing the magnetic fields to couple together, creating a gas stream along the poles (this is why Aurora Borealis/Australis is best observed at the poles). The magnetic fields keep deflecting on the other side of Earth (away from the sun) and couple together until they break/fuse – nighttime aurora.

A great video by the University of Oslo explaining this phenomenon:

The energy provided by the storm along Earth’s magnetic field excites gases in our atmosphere, which on going back to ‘ground state’, emit the observed light. The color of the light depends on the gas composition, hence also (indirectly) on the altitude. Purple/blue is light emitted when nitrogen is ionized, green/yellow/faint red is the excitation of oxygen and deep red is excited nitrogen. Other colors are combinations based on relative proportions of oxygen and nitrogen (based on the altitude).

Color of light emitted based on gas composition at a specific altitude. [Source](http://www.webexhibits.org/causesofcolor/4D.html)

Whale watching

After a 7-hour drive (~500 km) on the Swedish-Finnish border, we went whale watching in Tromso. Since herring stay here for winter, whales hunt in the area and are thus very active in December. While we came across several Killer whales (Orcinus orca), humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) are also common, with ca. 800 humpbacks estimated to live in the Norwegian seas in 2015. Here are some facts told to us by a local fisherman, whale-watching hobbyist and research collaborator:

Orcinus orca

  • Orcas live in families of 5-25 members, with a clear hierarchy; the oldest female (‘grandma’) being the boss;
  • Each family have their own dialects, yet still ‘understand’ each other;
  • There’s one ‘norwegian orca language’ with 64 dialects;
  • While Norwegian orcas do not ‘understand’ other orcas in the south and Americas, they do understand Icelandic orcas;
  • Male orcas can be 9 m long, weigh 9 tons, and possess a 2 m dorsal fin. Females can have a 1 m dorsal fin, at maximum;
  • Feed day and night, and eat 200-300 kg herrings per day – one fish at a time! The coordination between themselves, as well as ‘using’ boats at the surface, they a “carousel” of herring that they trap to the sea surface. They do not feed directly from the carousel, but only eat herring that are stunned by tail slaps.

Megaptera novaeangliae

  • Usually eat plankton, but in Norway they eat herring by ‘stealing’ from orcas’ fish schools (directly from the carousel). Additional techniques involve the use of air bubbles to trap herring in an area. Through coordination, they simultaneously attack herring at the surface.
  • Their blow can be up to 4 m;
  • The humpback tail flukes are unique and are thus used as a fingerprints to identify individuals
  • After 2-3 months in the Norwegian seas, they continue travelling ~16,000-18,000 km to the Caribbean.

Dieter Galea

Dieter Galea
Originally a biologist and chemist, now a PhD student at Imperial College London working on computational methods for biomedical data; analysis, visualizations, setting up data repositories, developing online tools, and mostly: fixing bugs. On my right is Kaiser - my Siberian husky and best friend.

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