During my trip home to Minnesota I have taken what I have learned about aurora watching in Alaska, and transferred it to conditions in the midwest. In doing so, I traded watching the aurora over snow drifts to squinting my eyes over bean fields with moderate success! A big push of energy from the sun has elevated geomagnetic energy to KP 6 or a G2-“Geomagnetic storm level 2”, which boosts the aurora to Minnesota, and even beyond. The two nights I chased the aurora brought success in both capturing the aurora in central Minnesota, and for playing with some new techniques which I will be honing in the upcoming year and are featured below. I would love to hear your feedback!
This timelapse below is fairly short and does not have a brilliant aurora, but does give a great idea of where to look for the aurora in Central Minnesota. During this G2 storm. In Alaska the aurora during a G2 storm would be far overhead and taking up the whole sky. In Minnesota it rose slightly above the horizon. Viewing would have been better if the smoke haze and moonlight could have been removed.
One of the techniques I am very interested in growing is the ability to capture full panoramas of the milky way. The progression of images below shows a little bit on how that works. I learned a lot in this first attempt. A few key findings : 1) find the darkest skies possible! The light pollution shows here. 2) need to have more overlap in the shots 3 ) I tried to capture the whole galaxy in one sweep of the camera. I now know I can stitch multiple rows of shots to capture a larger area 4) keep the ISO of the camera low-ish to reduce noise. For those reading this with experience in capturing the Milky Way, please contact me, it would be great to pick your brain!
I have done a lot to curate my aurora gallery on Fine Art America. I would love if you checked it out!
It will be another 6 months before I wander out into the night in chase of the lights. Each night brought its own set of wandering wonders, whether that was me wandering through snow-encrusted black spruce forests or the aurora wandering unpredictably overhead. This season has been described by many Watchers as “the best in years”. Indeed, the frequency and colors of the aurora this season were spectacular. I have enjoyed the Northern Lights from the comfort of a sleeping bag, over the northern edge of the Arctic Circle, and from the comfort of my own home. Braving -40 degree temps or enjoying 30 above zero have all been part of the experience. Over the season my knowledge of how to capture the aurora has grown immensely. The timelapse video below captures the highlights of this season for me. I hope you enjoy it.
Highlight Timelapse 2014 – 2015:
The images below are my Top 20 from the season. I must say, it was difficult not to extend it to a top 50 ;). These assorted pixels are a cross section of aurora intensities and color. Subtle or fluorescent greens, crimson reds, banded pinks, and royal purple danced for those below with necks craned up. Each of these auroras is unique, and I can say with hopeful certainty that I will never see the same pattern of auroras again. That’s why I chase, because you never know what lies in wait as you step out your front door.
As they watched from the river valley on earth and were surrounded by looming spruces, it was impossible to appreciate the forces which lit the heavens and lead to the impression of the sky being wrenched apart before their eyes. Ever building and ever collapsing, green bands of streaming light were changed and morphed as they moved across the sky. Arches of lime-light on the horizon diminished before their eyes , but were re-built again, again, and again. Each new band of aurora was different than the last, and each was beautiful. Waxing and waning the aurora finally monopolized one hundred and eight degrees of view and commanded the absolute attention of those below. Orion’s belt to the south was covered in emerald, and those same lights which infected the southern sky extended to the northern horizon.It was to the north that the viewers watched. The knew that whatever lay in store for this evening would start there.
Like a chick pecking its way out of a shell, one by one the patches of snow fell off the trees of the forest. As each ounce was shed from the trees, they raised up their still lifeless twigs up as if glorifying the sun, thanking it for removing the burden of many months. Throughout the forest cascades of snow starting from the tops of the highest branches tumbled and glinted like diamonds in the sun as the chunks were forced through the sifter of small branches by gravity. The warm rays of sun, an unknown entity through winter, warmed the dark branches. One by one they were free.
The first time you taste spring after the winter is a moment of true joy. The resilience to cold developed through the winter makes you bold enough to walk in the 30 degree temps in a flannel. Moist air on your lips from evaporating snow, the heat of the sun on your face, and a touch of warm breeze on your face may make you bound for joy. Literally bound. It’s a bound that brings a smile to your face, and if others saw you, they would smile too. The feeling of spring is infectious.
Watching the bonds of spring being softened and eventually broken is a great thing! As the sun warmed my face this week the world was a visual wonder. Snow fell from the trees in smatterings and piles, sliding off from its own weight or from external catalysis. Busy chickadees feeding around the well-stocked feeder at my house perched on twigs, gleaned through the branches, soaked up the heat, and ensured all of the snow was sloughed away from the imprisoned trees before taking flight again.
The first taste of spring is bittersweet. The knowledge that it ‘came too soon’ only pushes me to enjoy it more while I can. Winter certainly will try to take hold once again, and I will inwardly smile knowing that the next time it may be vanquished for good.
A few days ago the winter wonderland at the Sustainable Village was erased in an afternoon. I realized that the moment was happening so quickly that it could be captured on camera. Setting my up my camera I timelapsed the scene for the rest of the day. As you watch this video, focus on a spot and watch the change. I hope it gives you cheer and excitement for spring. Even if it is just a taste!
Last night’s unexpected G1 (minor storm) came with high solar winds and a LOT of early promise. The data was looking good as I polished my lens and charged my batteries. By 9:30 the Aurora had flared up into great form with evidence of the high solar winds showing. The speed of the aurora was astounding – it rippled and flowed in one direction like a river of green light in the sky. However, in truly unpredictable fashion, the fat lady sang at 10:15 PM and it was over. That’s an early considering peak, average activity is at midnight.
I’m continuing to push the envelop of what I’m capable of for shooting the aurora.I took the opportunity last night to experiment with my first aurora panoramas. Often times a single image cannot capture the scope of the aurora, so the advantage is capturing the whole arc of the aurora in the sky. These images were stitched in Photoshop 6 and are comprised of 4 – 5 images each. I am happy with a first attempt!
Beyond the panoramas I experimented with timelapse last night too. Incredibly, the timelapse here has shots taken down to 0.5 second exposures and at only 1 second apart. It gives the aurora incredible flow! I am getting closer and closer to it really feeling real which is my auroral goal. The speed of the technique differs from the past (2-4 second exposures and 2 seconds buffer) because of some high speed SD cards I got for Christmas which removed the need for much buffering/write time. It’s great!
There’s PLENTY of snow on the north side of Spinach Creek and it can make moving around a bit of a hassle. The snow itself is pure powder and easy to navigate, it is the grabbing stems of vengeful, cut black spruces which muddy the waters! You are often in the trap before you know it, and several times I was successfully taken down during my saunter. For scale I plopped down on the hillside and snapped an image – a good 3 feet or so!
The aurora while up-close and personal in the black-spruce forest!
February 1st : Aurora borealis north of Fairbanks, Alaska
Competing with the nearly full moon for some auroras!
Aurora Breath 🙂
The aurora had all but died out at this point – but that’s quite a bit of snow!
A beautiful aurora – doesn’t get much more classic that this!
A gorgeous flare of aurora overhead as seen through a gap in the spruce forest.
The full moon back-lights these black spruces in this aurora shot.
While my friends on the east coast are getting pummeled by a record blizzard, here in Fairbanks, Alaska we’ve finally hit “seasonably cold” temperatures. As the mercury dropped On January 25th – 26th to 40 below, the clear skies were coupled with good looking aurora data. The humidity was only at 5% which for me meant perfect clarity to the stars! As I stepped out of the truck I sucked in my first breath of the cold air; it’s always the hardest one! The sting is from both the cold air and the dryness.It bursts into the lungs and bites the nose.
Although this was not my first 40 below night walking around in Alaska, it was the first time I took my camera out into those temps! Shooting at 40 below presented some unique challenges. First, battery life is depressingly short and I could only take about 300 images in contrast to over 1000 on one battery. Second, anything metal is extremely dangerous to the bare skin, and when you are out shooting metal is a common thing! I was carrying a magnesium alloy camera, and aluminum tripod with an aluminum head. Dealing with these items meant wearing liner gloves which resisted the cold like an ant resists a lollipop – I’ve never seen an ant that could resist a lollipop. The result is that I watched the aurora play across the sky in beautiful patterns on several occasions while warming my fingers! Of course, the disadvantage of that is I cannot print my photographic memory, but I still enjoyed a great show as my digits warmed up. Third, clumsy mits made adjusting a cold, stiff tripod head quite difficult! What did I learn: future cold excursions will include a better pair of gloves!
With my petty whines aside it was a glorious night of aurora and aurora photography. I really focused on composition of shots, and although I did shoot a very short timelapse, most of my night was spent wandering through knee deep powder in the black spruces. Through the night the aurora shifted from an overhead band to the northern skies and danced in vibrant colors. Now that I am indoctrinated, I am looking forward to more auroras in the -40 club!
This is likely my best aurora image to date! I was really focusing on composition all night, and this one has all the pieces of a great image!!
Tracks in the snow indicate where I came from as I moved along the firebreak.
The aurora is just starting ‘heat up’ in this great image looking through the black spruces.
Anytime you see pinks in the aurora it means there is quite a bit of activity coming in. The pinks came and went quickly in smothered by curtains of green.
Panorama from 2 images stitched in PS6.
A second image with the sentinel pine – do you like the square crop, or vertical crop better?
Bundled up for that -50 below windchill! Temperatures hovered at about -35 and a slight wind plummeted the “feels like” temp to -50
A lone, scraggly pine tree stands sentinel on along the fire break.
The other side of the story is the temperatures when I back to the University of Alaska Fairbanks. I was hoping their thermometer would read an official -40, but couldn’t quite reach that. Although at 8:00 AM the sign read -40, so close enough! I’ve included a screen capture of the temperatures and humidity as a some proof as well 🙂
For months we have been losing daylight. June 21st marks a daylight decline which has defined cultures and natural systems in Alaska for millenia. The short days of winter psychologically effects the mind and physically alter the body. As it we roll out of our beds the morning after solstice we know that today is just a little bit longer the last! It is uplifting. Until that moment when the days lengthen, the waning light indoctrinates residents into the darkness. You simply get used to doing things in the dark! The changes of daylight we experience now have been celebrated by the traditions of the Inuit and Athabascan people of Alaska; their traditions are symbolic of change and new times. The Athabascan name for the solstice is “dzaanh ledo” which means “the day is sitting”. This description of the actual phenomena that defines solstice is fitting, the day is not gaining or losing time; it is stationary (ttp://goo.gl/cFN613). The Inuit of far north Alaska experience times of no sun at all, and during solstice communities held feasts where shamans prayed for the communities. Meat was eaten by each individual at the same time, and each person eating the meat focused on Sedna. Sedna is a diety of the Inuit underworld and a god of marine animals. After the meat was consumed, water was drank one person at a time in succession, and each person stated the time and place of their birth. To the Inuit this distinguished the summer and winter people. After a trading of gifts, the festivities ended by extinguishing lights in all of the homes which were kindled by a common, newly-lit fire garnering a new relationship with the new sun (http://goo.gl/aRyByZ). Inuit people were able to indentify the solstice when the star Aagjunk (literllaly “sunbeam”) lay directly below the sun which, although unseen, was just below the horizon (http://goo.gl/Rzzttg).
The solstice occurs at 8:30 PM in Alaska, but occurs at different times throughout the world (http://goo.gl/G6QEvw), and rekindles hope that winter is ending and that the new day will be longer.
I shot this timelapse of the Solstice sun on December 19th to give you a feel of the solstice sun (fear not, we only lost 2 more daylight minutes by the 21st). In Fairbanks Alaska, it barely crests the Alaskan mountains (Mount McKinley/Denali visible) before dropping below the horizon again. You can always check out the timelapse of summer solstice when it it never sets in the land of the Midnight Sun. Happy Solstice!
We shut the truck off and stepped out into a cool night and a light breeze which shocked the face. My friend Ross and I were after auroras, and we planned to summit Angel Rocks in the Chena Recreation Area to spend the night and watch it. The sun was low in the sky as we started up the 1.6 miles to the summit of Angel Rocks. By the time we had reached the top of the ~1000 foot climb, the breeze funneling up the canyon below had stopped, and the sun melted into the horizon leaving a blue and gold light which lingered for hours. With short days in Fairbanks, it was hard to forget it was only about 5:30! There was a lot of night to go.
I was delighted to find a cave at the top of Angel Rocks. It was two ended and had large crevasses in the ceiling to view the stars. In the middle I could stand all the way up, and the larger south facing entrance was almost 8 feet tall. I’m just speculating, but I think this cave was formed as a magma bubble. The geology of the summit was far different than any geology I had seen in the Fairbanks region. In contrast to the normal scree slopes and shale of the region, the exposed rocks were granite and had forms which suggested bubbling magma. The rock outcrop where we stood was very unique!
In a collision of natural phenomenons, the Leonid meteor shower lined up with an incredible aurora display. Each year the Leonid meteor shower peaks around the 17th or 18th of November. Named after Leo, the constellation that they seem to radiate from. The Leonids Meteor Shower is actually small pieces of the comet Tempel-Tuttle which burn up as they enter our atmosphere. Incredibly, the size of the majority of particles range from grains of sand to pea-size.The largest meteors are often only marble sized pieces of comet. That’s a lot of light from a particle the size of your favorite shooter!! These particles burn up because the air in front of them is compressed and heated which scorches the meteor. That’s way different than I was ever taught (i.e. they burn up because of friction with the air). How fast do they have to be moving to build up that air pressure? The particles can enter the upper atmosphere at 160,000 mph! The Leonids were 24 hours from peak activity, and throughout the night they dazzled us with frequent and long tails.
As the sun set the aurora immediately started up. In fact, with an ‘official’ start time of 5:30 PM it was the earliest I have ever seen the aurora appear! It certainly seemed to be a good omen for the night to come.
Over the course of the night we enjoyed three bursts of incredible aurora. From 5:30 – 7:00 PM, 9:30 – 11:30 PM and from 5:30 – 6:30 AM. Although sleeping in the cave would have been VERY awesome, the night was so warm that I was content to roll out my sleeping bag under the stars and slumber around midnight. I awoke at 5:30 AM not minutes before an incredible corona dominated the overhead skies (captured in timelapse!). I think my aurora sense was tingling and telling me to wake up!
The Aurora was all around us, here’s from the summit of angel rocks looking through a small chute
An Aurora selfie. Silhouettes are great!
Ross says “The Aurora is over here!”
The Aurora and Milky way melt together over angel rocks.
A red aurora band streaks through the milky way over Angel Rocks
An amazing corona formed over Angel Rocks. This was at 5 AM!
The scale of the aurora on 11/16/2014 was like nothing I had ever seen!
A remarkable corona overhead at Angel Rocks!
For the second night in a row the aurora put on an unforgettable show. I think the aurora are like fingerprints. They may look alike, but none are ever the same! For its immense status in the sky, I had never seen aurora that stayed as intense as this one. At times you could have read a book by it, and all through the night the sky was filled with incredible beauty and auroral ballerinas. In Minnesotan, it was “oofda good!”.
The incessant baying of sled dogs, a starlit night, and a beautiful red aurora. When I went out to Black Spruce Dog Kennels to capture the aurora I was waiting for the effects an X-flare to hit the earth. Two days before the sun had let loose one of it most powerful class of flares. Even though the flare was not directly headed to earth, the ejected plasma was expected to react with our earth’s magnetic field and cause some auroras! My goal for the night was to tie together two cultural pieces of Alaska – dog mushing and the aurora. Incredibly, the aurora started showing up on my camera at 6:00 PM on my camera along with the moonrise. On an ‘ordinary’ night the aurora will begin at 10PM – the early aurora was a good omen for what was to come!
From a technical standpoint this is one of my favorite auroras I’ve captured. The stars were pin-point sharp and as you’ll see the pan over a dog-sled adds a ton! Shooting over the activity of the dogs was a lot of fun – but I had to leave so they would kennel up. If you have ever been around a group of sled dogs they bark, bay, and howl when strangers are around!
Artistically, the reds are some of the nicest colors I’ve captured. They only appeared for about 25 minutes during the night, but it was stunning! Sitting under the aurora, I thought of the old adage “Red Sky At Night, Sailor’s Delight”, and thus the title of this post was born!
I arrived home at 5:00am and the aurora was still dancing over the Sustainable Village. I snapped a couple of captures for finally calling it a night, which you’ll see below. Overall the aurora was visible for 12 hours due to the x-flare activity!
The timelapse video here captures the reds of a beautiful aurora and a little slice of life at the Black Spruce Dog Kennels.
Ice-up will be happening any day now in Fairbanks. The small ponds and marshes have been locked with ice thick enough to walk on since the end of September, but the rivers have resisted a solid state owing to a not-too-cold October to date. However, in the Interior it seems that 40 below could only be the next day away!
I took the opportunity to find a new aurora watching spot. My goal was to shoot over an open river. I headed to the Chena Lakes Recreation area and found my view at the Granite Tors campground. The North Fork of the Chena was running, snow-covered and beautiful! As I walked up it’s banks I was a bit on edge however. On a moonless night at 12:00 AM in Alaska, moose look the same as the inky blackness. Although they shouldn’t pose any real danger this time of year – they just want to get away – I was not looking to be scared tonight! However, in dramatic fashion a cannoning KAPLOOSH echoed up the river, and the source came from the river only ten feet away from me. A beaver, out for a midnight swim announced its presence and effectively scare me into nearly dropping a load! Lol, nights in Alaska.
The rev of the aurora engine was a bit slow right away, but a broad overhead band suggested that sometime during the night the show could be spectacular! At 12:45 AM the broad, undefined band erupted into curtains of pink and green (another example of Why The Aurora Flares Up). A hint of blue shimmer lit up far edges of the aurora in space. Overhead they danced and danced. The timelapse here captures the night. I have continued to develop new video editing techniques, and I think some of the motion introduced in this particular timelapse is pretty effective, but I would love to know what you think!
Just as a little fore-shadowing I spent yesterday putting up a friend’s Yurt. It was great, and I shot a fun timelapse of that. More on that soon! 🙂
Here’s a gallery of some images from the night. Be sure to click on them to expand. Thanks for checking in!