Saturday, March 19, 2011

Wrapping up

  At some point I'll do a proper blog entry on the Hendry lab's eco-evolutionary dynamics blog, discussing the science that we did at the Abisko winter school.  This is not the forum for that, though, so if you're interested in that, subscribe to that blog.  :->

  For now, I'll just say that I spent most of the daylight hours in a small but aesthetic lecture hall:

listening to talks by luminaries like Ole Seehausen:

and then in the evenings I got to hang out with a great crew of fellow students:

  (There are some instructors in that photo too, but you get the idea.)  It was lots of fun, I learned a lot about ecology and speciation, and I saw the northern lights for the first time.  Oh, and I played such a great set of ping-pong with one of my comrades that I got a blister on my knuckle that is still healing now, more than a week later.  Not bad!

  On the way home, the group stopped off at the Icehotel in Kiruna, Sweden, a hotel made of (you guessed it!) ice.  I took lots of photos there; it was really quite nifty (at the same time that it was gimmicky).  Then I went to Stockholm and left my camera on a bench in a bus station, so that's that; go to their website if you want to see what a hotel made of ice looks like.  I got some nice sunset photos of river ice and elegant buildings in Stockholm, too.  Oh well.  Now I'm trying to decide what kind of camera I will buy as a replacement.  Hmm... an Olympus PEN E-PL2, perhaps?

  OK!  Since this is a travel blog, and I'm done traveling, this is my last post until I return to Europe, probably this August/September.  I'll be putting up my favorite photos on my photography website,, so you can check that out.  And I'll be posting about the winter school from an academic perspective at, if that interests you.  Apart from that... have a happy spring equinox!  Over and out!


  It has been a good winter.  My first time snowshoeing, and then my first time snowmobiling!  Here's Ulf and Åke, the two organizers of the Abisko winter school, gearing up:

  I don't have a photo of myself, but everybody looks more or less the same once they're in a puffy blue suit and a helmet.  :->

  We rode through various kinds of terrain, from quite flat (frozen lakes) to fairly hilly:

  I took all these when I was a passenger riding behind Åke, by the way; driving was a full-time job.  When Åke was first learning to drive I could photograph off the back quite easily.  Later on he discovered the joys of hard acceleration and catching air off of bumps, and photography became impossible.  I did drive about half the time as well, although I wasn't as adventurous as Åke; he apparently hit a top speed of about 85 kph, while I topped out at about 60 kph.  That felt plenty fast.

  It was fun, but not quite as addictively fun as I thought it might be.  I imagine I may do it again some day, but I'm not itching for the chance.  Motorcycling was a lot more fun, back before I stopped doing that.  It felt relatively dangerous, compared to motorcycling (and that's saying a lot, obviously), and it didn't afford much opportunity to look at the scenery while driving because the driving took concentration.

  So all in all, I enjoyed the moments when we stopped the most.  I got some nice scenery shots in those interludes:

  Mostly it seemed like a good way to get to remote beautiful spots in the winter; I liked the destination more than the journey.  Still, I won't claim that it wasn't fun!

More Abisko

  I'm back in Montreal now, finally, after being tortured by various airlines for 36 hours.  I'm getting over my jet lag and catching up on loose ends, which, among other things, means finishing off this blog.  So I'll be doing a couple of posts on my last days at Abisko.  Here is what Abisko looked like sometimes:

  That's someone photographing a little dead tree, off in the distance across the frozen lake next to the research station.  You work with what you've got.  But that's not what I'm here to talk about.  I'm here to talk about the times when Abisko looked like this:

  Not bad, eh?  OK, to finish off this post, here are two photos of me in Abisko, the first from my camera, the second from Claire's:

  Abisko is a dangerous place, there are bears around everywhere.  That's it for this post.  Next up: snowmobiling!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Aurora borealis

  Abisko is famous for its displays of the aurora borealis; the Abisko tourism website says it's the "best place on earth" to see it.  The aurora borealis is most visible from 60° to 72° north; Abisko is at 68°N, just north of the Arctic circle. Abisko is also supposed to have "fresh, clear air" and a "practically permanently cloud-free sky"; never mind that while I've been here it has been cloudy more often than not. The aurora also occurs most often close to the equinoxes (I have no idea why), and of course the spring equinox is ten days from now. And then on top of all this, there has been good solar activity in the last few days, and the aurora is driven by solar activity (see the Wikipedia page if you want to read about that, I'm not going to get into it).

  We've seen the aurora well twice so far.  Tuesday night was absolutely stunning.  It was the first time I've ever seen it, so that was a nice way to start.  It was quite bright, but whiter than I expected.  It turns out that it photographs as green, but to the naked eye it appears rather whiter (although still somewhat green; just not nearly as green as the photos make it look).  This may be a matter of human night vision, actually; it presumably really is green, but night vision uses the rods in your retina, which don't see color (cones are for color), so I guess that makes the color be washed out compared to what the camera sees.  Perhaps when it is exceptionally bright, it looks greener; I gather it can sometimes be bright enough to read by.  Anyway, it also moved and changed much faster than I expected; it would flutter and wave and brighten and darken second by second, sometimes, which was really lovely to behold.  At its peak that night, it stretched from one horizon to the other in a continuous curtain that was shifting and waving across the sky, with other detached portions elsewhere in the sky.

  That Tuesday night we got lucky with a break in the clouds; it cleared up for about an hour, and the aurora was amazing, and then the clouds came back and stayed for the next day and a half.  Then today it got clear again, and this evening the aurora came back for a brief appearance.  On Tuesday I didn't attempt to photograph it, partly because I just wanted to watch it, and partly because I didn't have a tripod.  But tonight I propped the camera on a railing on a dock at the lake down the hill from the research station, and took a bunch of photos, one of which came out:

  F3.2, 30", ISO 400.  The bright spot is the moon, which is a crescent but which was so bright compared to the rest of the photo that it burned in as a disc.

  Tonight's aurora wasn't nearly as bright as Tuesday, and didn't move nearly as quickly.  Still it was nice; and there were some patches that were red, although I didn't photograph them.

  So now I have seen the aurora borealis, and I can die happy.  It's one of the more beautiful things I've ever seen.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


  So, here I am in Abisko!  I'm attending a week-long workshop (well, officially a "school" but I find that term strange) on ecology and speciation.  It's going quite nicely so far; very interesting lectures, and starting this evening we will have some seminar-style discussions, too. Lots of modeling and equations, lots of fascinating concepts. But that's not what I'm going to write about right now; maybe later.  For now, I just want to show you photos of the place.

  So the school is at a small research station outside the actual town of Abisko. Here are some photos from my first day here, when it was gray and snowy:

  Happily, it has not stayed like that the whole time (just most of the time).  This morning it was relatively clear; still a high gray cloud layer, but pretty good views nevertheless.  I climbed a small meteorological tower here and got a few photos of the surroundings:

  As you can see, Abisko is pretty well surrounded by mountains. The last photo shows a famous local landmark, the "Gateway to Lapland", the gap in the mountain range there.

  We had a presentation yesterday by one of the folks who lives at the station and does research here.  Here are some notes I took from his talk, giving some context on Abisko and the research station:

  Abisko exists because of Kiruna, and Kiruna exists because of iron mining.  [If I recall what our bus driver up here told us, Kiruna has the largest iron mine in the world. He said that with recently rising metal prices, Kiruna was experiencing a huge boom, and housing prices had gone through the roof, such that he, a waste-processing engineer, had to work nights as a bus driver just to pay his rent.]

  The research station was constructed in 1912; research began in the area earlier, in 1902. It once focused on research into the natural environment of the Abisko area; now it is more outward-looking and hosts many foreign scientists and workshops. Abisko is in a rain shadow due to the mountains to the west, and receives very little precipitation. This means the area compresses what are normally long latitudinal gradients, making them easier to explore in the field. It is not a natural landscape; reindeer herding by the Sami people has grazed down the landscape for at least 400 years. There are six field cabins around Abisko Station (some with their own saunas!). Several thousand scientific publications have come out of the Abisko field station.

  Some of the fields of research pursued here:

Geoscience research: glaciers and inland ice. A focus on landscape-forming processes at different timescales and under different climatic conditions.

Geomorphological research: mountain erosion, debris transport, sedimentation and archiving of past environments.

Experimental ecology: creation of chambers with altered temperature, CO2, and UV-B radiation, and experiments to see the effects of this on vegetation, ecological processes, and biodiversity.

Integrated activities: monitoring, manipulation, modeling. This kind of interaction between empirical research and modeling creates a positive feedback loop of science: predicting and measuring feeding back on each other.

  He finished up by talking about climate change.  What is happening to the environment in the north of Sweden? There has been an increase in temperature over the last 15-20 years, and the permafrost is starting to melt at low altitudes around Abisko. The landscape is slumping in some areas, and moving more than it used to. The prediction is for more snow, paradoxically, despite the rising temperatures, in this area. There are multiple changes such as warming and loss of cold winters. He estimates that 90-95% of the climate scientists he meets at Abisko are very concerned about these changes, and believe they are anthropogenic. One of the biggest consequences will be alterations to peat bogs, which will thaw and release methane. Many metrics of change have showed movement in recent years. Snow depth almost doubled in the past 90 years, hardness and wetness of the snow cover in increasing. [And his time ran out here and he stopped talking.]

  So, that's Abisko!  Next up, aurora borealis.

My car

  Hello from Abisko, Sweden, north of the Arctic circle!  I have lots to blog about from up here, but before I do, let me just share with you some photos of the winter I'm missing back in Montreal. This is my car, which I left for the winter at a friend's cabin north of the city:

  Yes, there is a car in there.  I'm hoping its roof hasn't gotten crushed in by the weight of the snow or something, and that the engine will start come spring.

Amusingly, there is less snow in Abisko than in Montreal, and it's warmer here than in Montreal, too.  This, despite Abisko being well north of Fairbanks, Alaska, or Reykjavik, Iceland, or pretty much any other crazy-remote northern spot you can think of.  But it would have been a different story if we had gotten to Abisko two weeks ago; it was -35°C back then, apparently.

  OK, my workshop (on ecology and speciation) is about to start again, so I must be off. When I have time, I'll post about the aurora borealis I saw last night!