Shimmering cold and bright

Shimmering cold and bright

Top image: Students doing in-situ observations of the northern lights outside the Kjell Henriksen Observatory (KHO). Photo: Njål Gulbrandsen/UNIS. 

The students attending the UNIS course “Polar Magnetospheric Substorms” hit jackpot during their fieldwork the other week. The Aurora Borealis put on a spectacular sky show for the students, who are at UNIS to learn more about the northern lights.

26 November 2010
Text: Eva Therese Jenssen

Eight students are attending the new UNIS graduate course in geophysics; AGF-345 Polar Magnetospheric Substorms. The five week intensive course aims at teaching students the processes behind substorms which are the primary process behind intense aurora displays.

– The students learn about all the theories about why and when the northern lights appear, explains Kjellmar Oksavik, professor at UNIS.

The students had two nights of field work up on the Mine 7-mountain outside Longyearbyen.

On this site, both the UNIS aurora station, the Kjell Henriksen Observatory (KHO) and the EISCAT Svalbard Radar are located, offering state-of-the-art facilities to do in-situ observation of the northern lights.

Aurora, Eiscat radar facility, Svalbard

Students in the AGF-345 course on fieldwork at the EISCAT radar facility during a magnificent northern lights display. Photo: Njål Gulbrandsen/UNIS.

Aurora for the very first time
And the students hit jackpot, both nights the aurora offered a spectacular night sky show, giving the students an excellent opportunity to collect data for their project work.

For one of the students the aurora experience was a first – despite studying the aurora she had never seen the phenomenon before.

– It was spectacular to see such a dynamic aurora display, says Christine Gabrielse (25) from the U.S.

She is a PhD student at UCLA in California and her thesis will focus on magentospheric substorms. However, Christine had never seen the aurora before she arrived in Svalbard.

– It was a really cool experience and I was so excited to finally see it, she says.

Part of a research team
Christine is very satisfied with the course, and especially the format of the course.

– I think it maximizes my ability to learn and retain knowledge. We have lectures in the morning, in the afternoon we have group work on exercises, which we discuss with our professors in class at the end of the day. This is a better way to learn than your typical one hour university lecture before going home to study alone, she says.

– The interaction with my class mates all day really made me feel as part of a research team rather than just part of another class, she says.

She has also adapted to the climate and the lack of daylight. – Living here feels like living on the frontier, an experience I would like to repeat some other time.

Professor Oksavik is very impressed with the students. – They are extremely motivated and their teamwork is excellent, so this has overgone my expectations, he says.

Patience and warm clothes
PhD student Njål Gulbrandsen caught the aurora on camera during the two field work nights. Some of his pictures are posted on Spaceweather.com.

Njål has the following tips on how to take good pictures of the aurora:
– Tripod is necessary, and remote shutter control is useful. Use long exposure time and relatively high ISO, between 400 and 800. Also a wide lens is nice, to get more of the sky and more light, is the advice he offers.

In addition, you need patience and warm clothes. And remember, get some landscape or some other feature in the picture too – just a shot of aurora could be rather boring.

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