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EPS Historic Sites - Haldde Observatory

The Observatories on the Haldde Mountain

Sunday, August 26 2018, the Observatories on the Haldde Mountain was inaugurated as an EPS Historic Site, the first in Norway, at nearly 70o north.

When Kristian Birkeland in 1896 came up with the idea that the northern lights were caused by cathode rays from the sun, he also wanted to measure the heights of the northern lights in order to support his belief that the auroras could reach down to the clouds. He actually was of the opinion that auroral arcs and cirrus clouds were related phenomena.

Professor Kristian Birkeland applied to the Norwegian Parliament in 1898 for support to establish two observation towers in the mountains close to Bossekop, Alta, for observing the northern lights and measuring their heights by triangulation. Thus the first Auroral Observatory in the world was constructed with one tower at the Haldde mountain summit in 1899, and another at the Talvik summit, only 3.4 km apart. This short distance clearly demonstrates that Birkeland underestimated the height of the aurora.

Birkeland stayed with his assistants in the observation towers during the winter 1899 to 1900. Their results, as far as the heights of the northern lights are concerned were no success at all, but fortunately they brought with them magnetometers that uncovered the effects of electric currents in the atmosphere related to the occurrence of the aurora.

In 1910, The Norwegian government started the construction of  the meteorological and geomagnetical observatoy on Haldde, again on the  initiative of Prof. Kristian Birkeland. 

In July 1912 Ole Andreas Krogness could move in to the new facility with his wife, while the assistants stayed in the tower. However, the dwelling conditions there were far from satisfactory, as the two assistants almost perished due to carbon monoxide and were forced to move in to the new building together with the Krogness family. Birkeland again asked the government for support to expand the house, and in September 1915 Olav Devik, another assistant of Birkeland, also moved to Haldde with his wife and assistants. The main building had now four flats and an office, and at maximum occupancy three families with children lived at Haldde, also during winter.

Krogness was responsible for the observations of magnetic field variations related to the northern lights. These observations helped to improve significantly the understanding of the connection between geomagnetic activity and Auroral activity. He also realised that the distance between the magnetic observatories in Northern Europe was too spread out and contacted a well-known astronomer Sigurd Enebo at Dombås and asked for help to install a magnetic observatory on his farm. The observatory was opened in 1916 and has been running ever since.

Another cooperation with professor Vilhelm Bjerknes at the Geophysical Institute in Bergen lead to an improved weather forecasting system for Northern Norway, a system that has saved many lives and helped many fishermen and whalers ever since.

Krogness and Devik soon realised that Haldde was not well suited for modern research and discussed the possibility of establishing an academic centre in the north. They started to look for a more comfortable workplace and succeeded in obtaining support from the city of Tromsø and the neighbour municipality Tromsøysund. In 1919 they could leave Haldde for the new established Geophysical Institute in Tromsø, and Haldde was left on a reduced schedule until it was closed down in 1926.

It is fair to say that the work conducted at Haldde, in particular by Ole Andreas Krogness, Olav Devik and Lars Vegard, significantly contributed to the development of weather forecast in Northern Norway. In particular, it was an important forerunner of the Auroral Observatory in Tromsø, later one of the pillars enabling the founding of the University of Tromsø and its physics department.

The inauguration ceremony of the EPS Historic Site at Haldde took place in beautiful weather after a hike of 9 km ascending more than 1100 m up from sea level. The annual Haldde March was organised the same day, and this event provided hot food, drink and a welcoming atmosphere inside the building as well as an audience outside to witness the inauguration.

First, the ceremony was opened with welcoming words and introduction by the Head of Culture Affairs at Alta municipality, Tor Helge Reinsnes Moen, who told about the efforts of the municipality to restore and develop the buildings at the Haldde mountain as a destination point and landmark in the area. Prof. Emeritus Asgeir Brekke then gave a talk about the history of the buildings on Haldde (see above). The Secretary General of EPS, David Lee, introduced us to the EPS’ Historic Sites initiative, and the Director of the Faculty at Alta campus, Rune Sundelin, extended greetings from UiT the Arctic University of Norway (former University of Tromsø). Also, UiT is strongly involved in restoring and upgrading the site in recognition of its important role as a forerunner of the Auroral Observatory and later the University of Tromsø.

The unveiling of the plaque in the end was performed by David Lee and Rune Sundelin. The ceremony was conducted by former President of the Norwegian Physical Society Åshild Fredriksen, who also nominated the site.

The first Auroral Observatory in the world was constructed with one tower at the Haldde mountain summit in 1899...

The Haldde Observatory buildings as of today.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons / HenrikJ (CCBY)

Åshild Fredriksen and David Lee in front of the plaque. Photo: Rune Sundelin

A spring day at Haldde 1913 with the families outside appreciating the sun. Note the gramophone up front. Photo: Ole Andreas Krogness

Right-click to enlarge images

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