Monday, September 26, 2016

Enchanted by Northern Lights in Iceland

If I told you, I went on Aurora hunting trip in Iceland all the way from Dubai, does that sound thrilling? Well, then it was! One of the best experiences in my life, specially because northern lights has such a special place in my heart.
Tried my hands on Northern Lights Photography!
When I was in 8th grade in school, I took part in inter school astronomy competition and I was given concession from attending classes to hang out in school library and prepare for the competition and to bring the award to the school. This was pre-google era, when you had to read books to gather knowledge and information. For a book-lover like me, it was almost like a feast! I used to spend hours sitting in the library going through books which were not touched for years all related to astronomy, space science and astrophysics. One afternoon I opened a book and wow, on the first page, there was that ethereal photo of Aurora Borealis! I was so fascinated by the phenomenon that I decided the same day that I have to travel far North someday in my life and see these dancing northern lights in front of my own eyes! For the record, I lost the first award on question related to Tunguska event (a historic meteor strike in Russia) and got second place in the competition.

So when I saw the Northern Lights last week, I practically danced and jumped and felt like that same school girl in 8th grade!

Northern Lights Facts

For naked eyes colors were looking much fainter

I would like to tell you few things which no body tells you about Northern Lights. For sighting you can not depend on Northern lights forecast only there are numerous factors affecting your chances of seeing them that makes them very unpredictable. You might see less colorful lights with naked eyes but your camera can capture the full glory! Don't even waste your time to drive on your own and look out for northern lights if it's first time for you, Those northern lights can look similar to clouds for first timers, specially if it's overcast.
You need an expert to locate northern lights in sky and find place on ground from where you can see them. I am happy to share information about an expert I found in Iceland, just promise me you will keep our little secret!

I kept on checking Northern lights forecast before few day of my trip. It's always advisable to go on northern lights tours at start of your trip, so that if you can't see them, these tours let you come one more time without charging you. Also if you really want to see Aurora Borealis, you should be in Aurora Borealis location for at least a week, because northern lights activity is high for 3-4 days with gap of 2-3 days. Better to be there for the complete cycle to increase your chances of seeing northern lights.

My Northern Lights Experience

Aurora Borealis Band
The day I got to see Northern lights, it was overcast, full moon, raining that night and Aurora Borealis KP level was predicted 5 by a few northern lights apps. KP Index is global geomagnetic storm index based on 3 hour measurement of K indices. Basically in simple words, it shows the probability of seeing northern lights in sky that night. But all thanks to Runar from Time Tours, I could still see these captivating lights!

Our trip started around 10.30-11 pm, Runar was looking at different websites for reference and live streaming drove out of Reykjavik, looking for gaps in cloud cover. At first stop in southern side, near sea, he explained and helped us out with our camera for Northern Lights photography. We waited for a while but clouds started gathering and even it started raining, so we drove off from their to another location. This way we drove in many diff rent directions, which I think only Runar remembers. On 3rd or 4th stop we saw northern lights for the first time in between cloud cover, Very faint green, almost cloud color. Then we even located Aurora Borealis band right on top of our heads. After Some successful photos and northern lights game of appearing and disappearing, the cloud cover again started blocking the view.

Later Runar took us to other location on hunt of northern lights, we even joined him in the hunt looking out of window in the sky. It's not an easy job, you have to clearly know how northern lights look. Then we found them, stopped, some photos again, this went on for few hours. At one point, we got to see northern lights dance, it was mesmerizing! No words to explain that for sure. I felt so lucky to see them, but kind of craved for more. Someone in our tour group complained about their color not as green as he expected. But when Nature shows it's wonders I don't think we are at place to do quality check, I don't know how to get disappointed when you are seeing nature's magic in totally difficult conditions. I mean most of the tour operators already cancelled the tours that day sighting adverse conditions like overcast and rains. So it explains why I highly recommend Time Tours! Another great part is, Runar actually explains you all the technical stuff behind Northern lights, if you have older kids you should definitely take them on this tour it's not just fun but very educative too, just be prepared to sleep really late and keep your next day's itinerary relaxed. I reached back at around 2.30 am.
I pre-booked the tour for my first night in Iceland, but because of low KP index I even postponed it few times, but Time tours happily accommodated all my requests. They even take your photos on back ground of northern lights, if you fancy it. Then they will send you all photos taken by them on the same night through emails. So don't worry much about northern lights photos, you can choose to just enjoy them and lock the glory in your memory box.

What are Northern Lights?

Auroras are basically caused by the interaction of solar wind with Earth's magnetosphere. When the charged particles from the sun's corona strike atoms and molecules in Earth’s atmosphere, they excite those atoms, During the process with which they return to their normal state, they emit this excess energy in the form of visible photons. The aurora often appears as curtains of lights, but they can also be arcs or spirals, often following lines of force in Earth’s magnetic field. Most are green in color but sometimes you’ll see a hint of pink, and strong displays might also have red, violet and white colors.

One more funny thing I would like to specifically mention, I met quiet a lot of Australians during my time in Iceland, who wanted to see northern lights and when I asked them have they seen southern lights? Most of them didn't even know that something like this exists. Southern lights are known as Aurora Australis. It has been observed that the northern and southern auroras very closely mirror each other at any given moment.

Preparation for Northern Lights Tours

Here are few things I would like to mention, take good number of layers of warm clothes with you, it can get pretty cold at night that too somewhere outside city. Particularly hand gloves are very useful. Pack your raincoats and rain cover for cameras. If you plan to do Aurora Borealis photography taking tripod is must and also keep extra battery, if you are spending day taking photos. I carried extra camera battery and mobile charger as batteries drain fast in colder weather.
Don't forget to be responsible during all northern lights excitement. Carry your reusable water bottle and thermos or coffee mug fill with hot chocolate. You will thank me later. When you get back in the car, you can sip on your hot chocolate and relax. Better to carry some snacks as well, I don't know was that excitement or what but I was hungry even after dinner and many people were munching. While seeing northern lights and taking photos stay away from roads, number of accidents are increasing. There is high chance you can forget where you are standing, when the magic will start in sky. Please don't throw any garbage in wild. When you are seeing prettiest things in sky, don't forget beauty on the land though it might look barren in Iceland and but don't spoil it in any way. And lastly please don't judge the beauty of Aurora Borealis, just because you paid for the trip. It's not an ordinary show, for which you can buy tickets and criticize later. Let's not be that materialistic and consumerism oriented that we can't even enjoy the wonders of Nature!

There are some northern lights boat tours as well if you want to try them and when conditions are favorable you can even see Aurora Borealis from Reykjavik city! The Grotta light house located far end of city is one of the great location to avoid light pollution.

After our heart was content with basking in the Northen lights on tour with Time tours, we even got to see a full semi circle rainbow in moonlight! I never even imagined before that you can even see rainbows at night! God was definitely in one of his best moods, when he was creating Iceland!

Saturday, August 20, 2016

A James Bond-like Car for the Common Man to Save the World

Last month Al Futtaim Motors lent me one of their hybrid car, Toyota Prius and our family of sustainability professionals and an Eco-kid was thrilled to go around in town in this green car! While mommy enjoyed the driving experience, daddy (who's passionate about automobiles) explained all technicalities and curious kid in back seat was totally engrossed watching energy monitor on dashboard.
This time, I requested our in house sustainability as well as automobile expert, my husband, Nandan Tavkar to write about this car for my readers and first time ever in last 8 years of this blog somebody was all ready to contribute!

Initial Reaction

Being an avid car enthusiast, and a sustainability enthusiast, I was delighted when I was offered to review the Prius. There are two trim levels available for the car, Dynamic and Iconic; we were given the Iconic model for review. 

In the first glimpse we had of the vehicle, it was captivating. That night, Ruhaan (our son) and I went down for a pre-review and, a sneak quick drive. Subsequently over the weekend we did several test drives of the car.
Stands out easily – no problems locating it in the Parking Lot
On the inside, the interiors were clearly intriguing. The seats and the consoles were rendered in a classy two tone finish of ivory-white and black. The ergonomics are excellent and everything is where you would expect it … well almost (check the Quirks section if intrigued). The car includes numerous smart (electronic or otherwise) features for making the in-car experience better.

The Prius has two screens, ergonomically placed such that you can be aware of the important information such as speed and fuel efficiency while concentrating on the road.

Regulars such as the Phone charging slot, USB slot and headphone slots are easily accessible and where you would expect them. Interestingly, there is a wireless phone charger pad where you can place your phone and charge it – we couldn’t get that to work with the phones that we have.

Two cup holders are placed between the driver and passenger seats. The cup holders are provided with a spring which adapts to the size of the cup.

Touch Screen Sound Adjustments
The JBL entertainment system sounds good; what appealed to us most, was the choice of Bass, Mid, and Treble sound setting adjustment. You get the center touchscreen for the adjustments, while it’s possible to browse through the radio channels and volume via the steering mounted controls. The set-ups are simple and intuitive. 
The first observation I had about the seats, was that they were so well balanced and comfortable. These seats were definitely designed with significant consideration to science and art of ergonomics. 

The rear seats were comfortable too with ample leg space. However with my minuscule size, I would not be a good yardstick for leg space. With the baby seat fixed on the rear seat, it appeared to be a bit crammed for my son as his legs would touch the back of the front passenger seat. The boot seemed to have practical space in terms of depth, height as well as width. It would easily accommodate the regular weekend supermarket runs as well as the occasional baggage storage for airport runs.
Space wise – there was ample space as much as would be expected from a family sedan. The interior space is similar to that of Toyota’s own Corolla, or Honda’s Civic, but smaller than the Camry, Accord, Altima bunch.

Driving it

The driver’s seat had the right supports in the right places seemed to wrap around me such that I was a part of the car. 
Having driven on UAE’s roads, one feeling I get is that it is necessary for the car to be interesting enough, such that you can drive on the long highway stretches without falling asleep, and without relying on the adrenaline rush from speed to keep you engaged. 

The Prius excels at this. The drive is engaging yet easy. As with the seats, the car seems to wrap around the driver and offers a great driving experience.

As I mentioned before, there are numerous smart features to enhance the drive. One of the features that stood out, in true-blue, diligent, Japanese style is the ‘Rear Crossing Traffic’ warning that flashes when a car is passing by while reversing. 

Our first drive was on an internal colony road, so we had to drive at a limited speed. Interestingly, in this situation, the car runs on the battery (not the engine) and is EXTREMELY quiet.
On a side note it’s useful to sneak up on someone … making it apt as a spy car (hence the title). We had some startled stares from pedestrians (walking on the road) to suddenly notice a car driving next to them.

Theoretically the electric motor is capable of insane acceleration, as seen in the Tesla. In the Prius, the acceleration is sufficient, well adequate to get you out of trouble situations, but not sufficient to scare you. Although we did not drive to the car’s maximum speed of 180 km/h, it got to the highway speed of 140 km/h comfortably and felt very stable.

Coming to the topic of speed, another one of the intelligent touches is that the speed is projected on the windscreen such that driving is not impeded. In fact it makes us pay more attention to the drive.

Safety and Handling:

I have had a love for cars that handle well (and loathe for those that don’t), and I absolutely loved the Prius. The handling is excellent, very predictable. In fact, behind the scenes, the car has several features (including the Electronic Stability Control, and other accident avoidance features) which makes it extremely safe. The car bagged the maximum 5 stars for safety on Euro NCAP on account of its accident avoidance features as well of its structural rigidity and air bags. 

Delight Factors – Hybrid Drive and Smart Features

Sustainability is implemented in two key areas – systems and behaviors. You may have all the systems but if not accompanied by behaviors, the effect will not be as pronounced.
The Prius excels in both departments, excellent systems as well as setting the culture of good driving with scores and motivational messages.
In terms of the systems, the car’s drivetrain has an extremely efficient 1.8 lit Atkinson Cycle petrol engine, and a hybrid system, which includes hybrid batteries, electric motors and a power unit. The car decides smartly when to use the hybrid battery operated mode and so this car can be used in existing fueling infrastructure.  
During the initial idling and low speeds, when the petrol engine is inefficient, the car runs on the electric motor powered by the hybrid batteries. The petrol engine is most efficient around cruising speeds, and this is when the car automatically switches to the petrol engine. While on the petrol engine the battery gets recharged. The battery gets recharged even during braking with a system which converts the kinetic energy in the wheels to electric energy. 
This is demonstrated in real time by the Prius’s Multi Information Display system which shows exactly when the car is using power from the battery, the battery getting charged from braking, and the moment when the petrol engine kicks in.
The Prius’s engineers have not stopped at the Multi Information Display. The smart bit which introduces the ‘culture’ is the drive score, and the motivational messages at the end of the drive. The motivational messages show the score and provide recommendations for better (more efficient) driving. In fact we saw our driving getting better after we started keeping track of the scores.
As a result of the Hybrid Drive system, the Atkinson engine, and the Motivational Messages, the particular Prius we drove was at around an average fuel consumption of 5.4 lit/100km (43.55 mpg / 18 km per lit), while one of my hour long drives in the Prius returned around 4.8 lit/100km (49 mpg / 20 km per lit).
In comparison, the average fuel consumption for the non-hybrid compact sedans (Corolla, Civic, Elantra) bunch can generally hover around 8 lit/100km (29 mpg / 12 km per lit), while that for the non-hybrid mid-size sedans (Camry, Accord, Altima) bunch can generally hover around 10 lit/100km (23 mpg / 10 km per lit). These figures suggest that the Prius can be generally 36% more fuel efficient than compact sedans and 46% more fuel efficient than mid-size sedans.

Quirks - Things that are not as they seem

Parking - We could not find the Parking Gear on the gear lever. Evidently there isn’t one on the gear. It’s on a button.  
EV Mode – Initially we thought it is a fully electric mode, where we use the car as an electric vehicle. However the Toyota engineers at Al Futtaim clarified that this wasn’t the case. The EV mode lets the car run for longer on the battery/electric motor until the battery drains, after which the petrol engine automatically kicks in.
B – Drive – There is a mysterious B-Drive gear option on the gear lever. This option introduces engine braking, such as is useful when descending a hill, but reduces the fuel economy. This option is generally not selected in normal driving in the UAE unless you are handling the steep Jebel roads in the North.


Our experience with the Prius could be summed up as fun, exciting, brimming with technology and with even more awareness of fuel efficiency. Our toddler son, Ruhaan, was so excited, he did not want to let go of the car. Ruhaan was excited and was narrating the whole battery – electric motor – engine switch-over routine. He now recognizes the Prius hybrid in car magazines, and inquires if there is a similar system in other cars (which, I think, is good benchmark to compare cars). I think all new cars should be at least hybrids, if not all electric.

If we were looking to buy a car, I would definitely go for it. It makes great sense with the things that are important to us as a family – safety, practicality, ease of driving, availability of maintenance, and of course – sustainable culture, and fuel economy.

With the new Prius, Toyota have done a great job at making hybrids normal yet, not boring. The car comes with a great thought, environmentally savvy, comfortable, fun, yet with serious technology, and well executed in a way that engages the user. The car, with its smart focused thought and technology, wraps around the needs of the driver, much like The Tuxedo … or even more appropriately, like James Bond. The car, very much so, belongs is a sci-fi movie, one about saving the world from global warming.