Helsinki & Tallinn

The overnight train arrived back in Helsinki early on Sunday morning after a long week up north in Lapland.  There wouldn’t be any time to rest, however, as this was the start of a week of fun in northern Europe.  I left the train station for a hotel a few blocks away to meet my friend Steve, who had agreed become my travel buddy for the rest of the week.  I had last seen Steve 4 years ago, but after only a couple hours together it quickly felt like we had seen each other a week ago.

Steve stretches out on the ferry ride to Suomenlinna Fortress in Helsinki. Relaxation would not always come often on our trip; we walked nearly 10 miles each day.

Our first destination was the island fortress of Suomenlinna, off the coast of Helsinki.  Originally built in the 18th century as defense against the Russian military, the fortress has evolved quite a bit over the years.  The island is now a living community and historical monument to the relatively short history (by European standards) of Helsinki.  Many locals visit the island in the summertime to have a picnic and enjoy the water.

TL: Parts of Suomenlinna Fortress looked an awful lot like the Shire, I kept waiting for a hobbit to stroll by. TR: The final resting place of Augustin Ehrensvärd, the man responsible for construction of the fortress in the 18th century. BL: Vesikko, the last remaining submarine of the Finnish military, retired at the end of WWII BR: Much of the island is filled with park areas, many locals visit the island just enjoy nature.

After dinner in Helsinki and with the help of some friends from ISR school we happened to run into that night in the city, we made a last minute decision to explore outside of Finland.  We hopped on a ferry the next morning and made the 2.5 hour trip across the Gulf of Finland to Tallinn, Estonia.

Perhaps some of my readers know their eastern European geography better than me when I first started planning my trip, but this map shows the short route between Helsinki and Tallinn and the relative location compared to other parts of northern Europe. Google tells me it takes 3.5 hours by car (?) to cross the Gulf of Finland, so I guess the ferry was the quicker option.

Visiting Tallinn was absolutely the correct decision.  Tallinn is one of the oldest capitals in all of Europe and their Old Town is a beautiful, well-preserved medieval city.  We only had about 3 hours (enough to check it off the list of countries I’ve visited!) but we could easily have spent a couple days there.  We hustled through a quick loop of the city in the drizzling rain to catch a glimpse of as much as we could, but there wasn’t even enough time to sit and enjoy a meal in one of the charming little squares.  Before we knew it we had to board the ferry and head back to Finland.

TL: One of the gateways to Old Town in Tallinn, Estonia TR: Aerial view of Old Town. It was a drizzly day but the city was still beautiful BL: Monk statues guard a small courtyard below a cafe overlooking Old Town. BR: A fairly common view down any street in Old Town of Tallinn.
Perhaps we didn’t leave time to sit and enjoy one of the squares in Tallinn (left) but there’s always time for archery competition in a medieval town (right?!). Steve won the competition.

The next morning we had plenty of time left in Helsinki to finish exploring the city.  The city is very clean and quite modern, and is also extremely walkable.  A few cathedrals and one more taste of Finnish cuisine (e.g. salmon, reindeer, moose, etc.) at the seaside market square wrapped up our first couple of days.

Just a few highlights of Helsinki from our last half day in the city. Left: Me standing out front of the Lutheran Helsinki Cathedral with a statue of Russian Tsar Alexander II in between. Right: The Three Smiths Statue in Helsinki.

That afternoon we caught a very short flight to Stockholm for the remainder of the trip.  I’ll save the rest of our journey for another post.

Until next time…


ISR Workshop Pt 2

Since the experiment night was such a late night, the organizers were merciful and put together a short excursion Wednesday morning that didn’t require much brain power.  We were shuttled down to a nearby park for a little nature walk, stopping once or twice along the way due to stray reindeer in the road.

I was never quick enough to get a snapshot of the reindeer in the road that forced us to stop the bus as the reindeer ran off into the woods. The driver did, however, slow down long enough for us to get a photo of domesticated reindeer.  Not exactly wild animals, but you get the point.

After spending a few hours outside on a short treasure hunt it was time to head back to Sodankylä and get to work.  As it turned out, the previous night’s experiment hadn’t turned out quite like we hoped.  The data from our “Plan C” was a little disappointing; imagine a storm chaser getting 2 hours to run an experiment at a world class facility but having only clear, blue skies to look at.  Fortunately for us, the radar facility in Sondrestrom, Greenland was operating very similarly to our “Plan A” experiment idea.  Mary McCready and the rest of the Sondrestrom crew were extremely helpful by providing us with a backup set of data to work with.

The Sondrestrom Research Facility is located along the west coast of Greenland just north of the Arctic Circle. The site is operated by SRI International and the National Science Foundation. (Photos courtesy of Mary McCready, SRI)

Before we got completely lost in data analysis, we found time to have a little more fun Wednesday night.  In Finland, saunas are a very integral part of the culture.  Some polls have reported that there is a sauna for every 2 people in Finland.  Our hosts wanted to make sure we got the opportunity to share in this bit of the culture, so they invited us out for a night at the sauna, which even included a floating sauna!

While most of the evening was spent in a traditional sauna along the shore, we each got a chance to experience the floating sauna. It’s very refreshing to open the sauna door and jump into the river and cool off, literally just a step away. (Photo by David Koronczay)

Thursday and Friday were spent working like crazy to get ready for the final presentations on Saturday morning.  The mornings were typically spent in lecture learning more about the radar systems and the afternoons/evenings were spent in group work cranking through the data as fast as possible.

Our original experiment idea involved looking horizon to horizon, north to straight up to south, in order to map the region in the atmosphere where aurora appears, typically called the auroral oval.  The data from the Sondrestrom radar was a little more complicated than our original experiment.  It performed similar horizon to horizon scans, but slightly tipped away from the vertical (local meridian).  The Sondrestrom mode produced data profiles that look like a fan waving back and forth.  The good news: we saw aurora!

In the video above the green regions indicate elevated electron density in the ionosphere (~100-400+ km altitude).  The occasional blips of red indicate regions of increased electron density, which is one way we can identify aurora even when the skies are too bright to see it visually.

Our final presentations on Saturday morning were a total group effort, everyone contributed. Here I am presenting some of the introductory material while the rest of my group waits patiently for their turn. (Photo by Phil Erickson)

Several days and long nights later, we were ready to present the results of the experiment to the rest of the school.  After a lot of hard work we had something we were confident to share and the presentation went well.  Just like that, however, the school was over and it was time to pack up, load the bus, and head back to the train station for our trip back to Helsinki.

Santa’s Village is outside Rovaniemi, Finland. Just to clarify, he still *works* at the North Pole, this is just his offseason home. (By Ruslan0202 (talk) (Uploads) – Own work, Public Domain,

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that we cross the Arctic Circle (~66° N latitude) on the way from Sodankylä to the train station in Rovaniemi.  Perhaps more importantly, we drove right past Santa’s Village, though we weren’t allowed to stop and say hello to the Big Guy.  Once back at the train station we took the same overnight train back to Helsinki.

The side benefit of super long days near the Arctic Circle is an extremely long sunset. This sort of view lasted for the better part of an hour during our train ride back south. It was a very nice way to cap off a long week of hard work.

The next morning once I arrived in Helsinki, I immediately started a week of travel through more of Scandinavia.  That will be the subject of another post (or two) in the near future.  Thanks for reading.  Until next time…

Addendum: For anyone who would like to see what we presented, I’ve uploaded our presentation here:  ISR2016-Group4.  A lot of it may not make sense without someone to talk about it, but it at least has some pretty pictures!

ISR Workshop Pt 1

I arrived in Sodankylä, Finland on Sunday with a group of about 50 students and instructors.  The group of students was incredibly diverse, with men and women from all over the world.  Aside from the handful of American students, people had come from Peru, China, Japan, South Korea, Egypt, Ethiopia, France, England, and Canada, just to name a few.  As a result, by the time we arrived most people were too exhausted to do any work.  Instead, we unpacked and went for a walking tour of the area.

A walk around the town of Sodankylä was a great way to stretch the legs and get a feel for the local environment. The rivers that surround the town are beautiful.

The town of Sodankylä is fairly small, only about 6,000 people live in the town proper.  It’s a quiet region in Lapland (Northern Finland) with lots of wilderness.  The mosquitoes weren’t quite as oppressive as I had feared and the fresh air was a nice break from 2 days of traveling in confined spaces.

This statue in downtown Sodankylä commemorates the long history of reindeer husbandry in Lapland and all over Scandinavia. The reindeer are semi-domesticated and have been herded for well over a thousand years.

Monday morning we started the week of school.  The first couple of days were mostly classroom lectures.  By the end of Tuesday, we were split into groups of 6 students to devise an experiment.  Tuesday night we ran experiments using incoherent scatter radar (ISR) facilities across the globe.

When we arrived for our experiment at the radar facility we were told to come up with a “Plan C.” My look of confusion as to what to do next might be apparent here. (Photo by Phil Erickson)

On Tuesday night we were to execute the experiment we had designed that afternoon.  Facilities in Alaska, Massachusetts, Peru, Greenland, and Norway would all be operating simultaneously and available for us to use.  Our group had decided to use one of the Norway facilities to study aurora, but when we arrived for our scheduled time we were notified that the radar was having issues and would be unavailable.

This computer terminal allowed us to communicate with the radar technicians at the actual facility as well as visualize our results in real-time. (Photo by Phil Erickson)

Our group had about 2 minutes to throw out “Plan A” as well as “Plan B” that we were advised to come with and come up with a new idea.  We were able to cobble together something on the fly and moved forward anyways because, hey, that’s life.  Our group immediately set to work gathering data and ended up coming out OK, so it turned out not to be an issue.  It pays to be flexible.

For the sake of brevity I’ll finish the rest of the week in another post.  The week at ISR school was long and work-filled, but we found ways to have some fun too.  Until next time…