29 January 2010

on Ofotfjord

It could be Sewanee, it could be anywhere - snow-surfaced forest floor, rocks, dirt, trees, saplings standing atop tumbled boulders resting halfway down the slope into the water - it just goes, goes without stopping, and eagles swoop out to scare away the ravens and their individual feathers separate and spread like fingers tilted upwards at their distal edges, and over the water they soar, skim the sea, the fjord, the mountain pass bridged only by wind, the sound of a train, and snowfall in the winter, shadowed only by a midsummer's midnight sun, despite the height, softening the shallow soil and sending birch leaves into a salacious frenzy, steaming, while their neighbors in stout-tufted needlestiff conebearing wisdom grow stunted because of too much light, or not enough. Sometimes, they learn, it is never enough.  A view of the fjord, the knowledge of wind and flight, the sun in its fullness and absolute absence - even the water rippling so tangibly below, the air clean enough to count the spouts of spray cresting each swell - is not enough.  The suspicion of current coming up from below cannot be traced, tagged, understood.  For the boulders resting on the slope, it is prosaic.  They watch, they wait, they rest under snow.  And though Sisyphus left long ago, they still feel the grooves where he placed his fingers in hope of change.

28 January 2010

Sometimes you have no idea what lies in front of you.

Can you ID this cloud? 

20 January 2010

all that jazz

Polar stratospheric clouds are astonishing.  Nine days ago a whole host of them flung themselves into the post sunlit sky and their freakshow left me speechless.  Hence the terse caption dangling from this photo.  But in a week and a half, I have caught my breath, relocated my tongue, and will try to sputter a few words in honor of these dumbfounding beauties.

Despite the flashy examples I've exhibited, not all polar stratospheric clouds (PSCs) are nacreous, or pearly.  In fact, what makes polar strasospheric clouds polar stratospheric clouds is not the color, the shape, or even a specific composition.  PSCs are simply concentrations of solid or liquid aerosols suspended between 15 and 30km during the Arctic or Antarctic winter.  For a PSC to be iridescent, it must be comprised of similarly sized particles whose size is comparable to their wavelength.  The wispy orb-like shape above results from orographic lift, in this case generated by strong tropospheric winds rushing over the Scandinavian Mountains. (As a side note - these mountains are fascinating.  You can read about the Caledonian orogeny here).

Yet despite their pizazz, nacreous clouds are not the most common form of PSCs.  Lately, the lidar at Kiruna has been detecting  a layer of PSCs above us which act nothing like their iridescent kin.  Without forceful winds to whip them into a colorful frenzy, they resemble subtle gray streaks, like soapy residue on a poorly washed window.  On the right-hand side of the photograph below, the sky appears to have a ribbed texture.  These bands are also PSCs, only not nacreous ones.

I must admit, the flare and mystery of a nacreous cloud floods me with admiration, but when I glanced above the trees this weekend while skiing through the woods, I was also amazed to see this warm spectrum of reds and oranges spread before a different kind of polar stratospheric cloud.

15 January 2010


It's the dawn of a brutal day.  The type of day that arrives after a spell of fair weather, clear skies, stirring light.  The kind of day that signals change in some realm of experience difficult to pinpoint.  You open a window or step across an icy roof and breathe a different sort of air, a newness, an arrival.

There was hoar frost on the railings.  The fog was back.  Only the bulldozed mountain of the iron mine caught direct light, golden, clean, radiant.  The smokestacks coughed up lumps of cumulus that drifted over the town, the sky all to their own.

12 January 2010

histogram schmistogram

If you happen to know a thing or two about photography, you may be casting a critical eye on this picture, thinking: there's nothing like a blazing ball of fire to throw off your histogram. And yesthankyou, I am aware of this. HOWEVER, when you consider the fact that this photo was taken by an Arctic hermit whose skin, after last feeling the sun four weeks ago on an island in the South Pacific, has long forgotten all notion of pigmentation, perhaps you will reconsider the value of this image.  I had to do it.  To document the fact that - YES, THE SUN STILL EXISTS  and yes, dear epidermis, you are still capable of synthesizing vitamin D.  The sun rises, the sun sets, and the world - at least this small corner of it - is a brighter place.

11 January 2010

at last!

I spoke too soon.

10 January 2010

lidars and lingonberries

I realize I have not yet said anything about where I am or what I am doing.  Let me explain.  I live at the Institutet för rymdfysik - the Swedish Institute of Space Physics - outside of Kiruna, Sweden, a town which squats on roughly the same latitude as Coldfoot, Alaska, the Kangerlussuaq fjord (Greenland), Lake Gorodetskoye (Russia), and the middle of Baffin Island.  Due to the proximity of the gulf stream, winter temperatures average around -15 C, but in the month I've been here, they have fluctuated between -35 and -3.5 (I didn't add the 0.5 to be cute; that data came from the institute weather station).  This minute, it is -3.9 degrees, and I'll bet every hill in town is crawling with miniature people chasing after sleds and slamming into snowbanks, turning them the color of lingonberries.  Technically, the sun has already set, but twilight will last for another hour or so.  It is about 1:30.

My job at the institute is...well, what it has always been.  I hunt clouds.  The greatest part about living here is that there are researchers here also trying to track polar stratospheric clouds.  And they have the world's best technology to do it.  Sheila has hooked up a spectrometer to a telescope the size of a small child and hopes to measure the light spectrum of a particularly nacreous cloud.  Peter shoots a lazer 50 kilometers into the atmosphere, measuring backscatter with a couple giant telescopes and a tangle of fiber-optic cables.  Last week, I helped him realign the mirror reflecting the beam via tiny motors contolled by computer.  When in the same room as the active lazer, we had to wear goggles that could have come from Arakis.  Since polar stratospheric clouds are usually only visible for a handful of days each winter, the window of opportunity to study them can be slim.  So I just keep watching.

For anyone Celsius-impaired, google has a handy built-in conversion tool just for you.  Search "-15 Celsius to Fahrenheit" and voila, a conversion.  This also works for just about any other unit you can think of, including bushels, cubits, hands...

07 January 2010

sun pillar

Here at IRF I am always looking out the window - every few minutes, if I can.  While I tend to glance at the daily forecasts for polar stratospheric clouds, aurora borealis, and tropospheric weather, you never know what you'll see that cannot be predicted, like this sun pillar I noticed last week.  A solar pillar is created when ice crystals whose surfaces are nearly horizontal reflect sunlight.  In the twenty-five days I have been in Sweden, I have yet to see the actual sun.  Any day now!

03 January 2010

sky tracks

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