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!
Just a few days ago I was writing to that it would be six months until I went chasing the lights again. Little did I know that one of the best nights of the season was still in store! Last nights aurora swelled overhead in vibrant shades of purple and blue. I was there to capture the action as the sunlight filtered out of the horizon at 10:30 and didn’t leave until nearly 2:30AM! The clouds rolled in and out through the night, and are evident in these shots.
Since I thought the Lights were all wrapped up for the summer – I guess they got the last laugh!
180 degree panorama looking to the north.
A huge pillar of aurora shoots into the sky.
The “Aurora Borealis Lane” sign is an infamous Fairbanks sign in the Goldstream Valley. Many aurora pictures have been taken over it – now I guess I have mine!
One of my best aurora shots to date! I love the colors and banding in this shot.
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 🙂
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!”.
This last week has been really amazing in regards to the weather in Fairbanks, Alaska. While my Minnesota family and friends hunted whitetails in 20 degree weather, we enjoyed temperatures nearing 30 degrees all week. To boot, it was sunny, you betcha! The Geophysical Institute forecasted high aurora activity starting on Friday night the 14th and extending all the way through Monday! With the warm weather, and aurora forecast it was just a matter of deciding where to go!
Panav, Logan and I arrived at the gates of Denali National Park at 9:30 PM. The winter regulations only allowed us to drive in 3 miles, and from there we packed our gear another 1.5. We located a place where the black spruces were shorter, and the mountains stood tall around us. The heart of Denali Park was absolutely dark, and as far as I know we were the only ones in the park that night! Meteors from the Leonid meteor shower flashed overhead leaving their long trails and thrilling the watchers on earth. This shower peaks on 11/17/2014 – so be sure to check it out if you have some clear skies tonight! Over the mountains, the aurora was already building as our three shutters started popping, and we did not have to wait long for the lights to explode around us. Energy of the northern lights always seems to originate from on horizon, and on this night the jagged horizon in front of us swelled with an intense green light that erupted overhead throwing pinks and greens in racing lines overhead.
The building aurora over Denali had a real treat in store for us! It was almost a year ago that I posted about my first “incredible” (I use quotations because they’re all pretty amazing) aurora, and I tried to explain the corona of the aurora. Officially, it is defined as “a circle of light made by the apparent convergence of the streamers of the aurora borealis” (MW Dictionary). My analogy was to think of single beam of the corona as a pencil, which you balance on your nose and then concentrate on the eraser; the corona is made of hundreds of green, red, and pink ‘pencils’! It is fast moving and pulses with energy. I am happy to say that I’ve captured a corona on timelapse for the first time!
Before leaving you with the the timelapse and images from the night I would like you to know I now have a page on Facebook, come check it out and follow along : www.facebook.com/ianlww. Thanks all!
Last night I was grinning ear to ear, and as I write this the corners of my lips are still curled into a smile. In September, I wrote about the joy of bringing someone out for their first aurora. Last night I was able to enjoy a whole new facet and spectacular joy of aurora photography by hosting an “Aurora Portraits” program through the University of Alaska Fairbanks Residence Life. When we arrived at our destination 10 miles out of Fairbanks the thin layer clouds had just started to burn off. A full moon lit the landscape around us allowing even the naked eye to see to the horizon line 10’s of miles away. A flash of green in the sky around 10:30 indicated to us that the auroral show was just starting to kick off and from that point on the aurora continued to build. As the green shifted and danced in the sky groups and individuals jumped in front of the camera and we proceeded to make memories. Between drinking hot cocoa and warm cider we laughed and enjoyed a beautiful night out. Last night’s aurora will be memorable for its beauty, and its friendship!
Incredibly, these shots are lit only by the moon. The gallery here is a select few images from the night – if you are getting this post via email be sure to click on the gallery images to enlarge them :). I also captured one shot (without people) that I’m particularly proud of. It is featured below this gallery.
The group poses for one of my most memorable portrait shots ever captured!
Getting a little goffy!
Panav doing the “Bolt”
Posing in front of the Aurora with fellow residence life staffers.
It has been labeled by some as the ‘storm of the season’, and even down in the Lower 48 strong showings of Aurora were expected. It was a true frenzy across much of Canada and the Northern U.S. However, the storm didn’t pan out how forecasters predicted because our magnetic field rejected the onslaught of solar radiation .
I did get a real treat out on Thursday evening when the storm first hit, and it may not be in the way that you think! Jiake is a friend of mine and fellow graduate student. He’s Tibetan and has been in AK for year, but had not witnessed the aurora yet. All that was about to change. His reactions were the real prize of the night!
As sunset hit on top of Murphy Dome the aurora started to show itself. The smudges of green mixed with lingering fall colors were nice – but Jiake was wondering, “will it get better?”. “Yes”, I assured him, “Yes it will”. As evening progressed the auroral symphony started to tune its strings. Beginning to the north it solidified and moved into a broad crescendo of dancing lights, and then falling to pianissimo, the lights went out. But then from the orchestral pit, Double Forte! Overhead, starting to the northwest and spanning across the sky through half-moon, the lights exploded in reds, blues, and green. Above us they shifted so quickly and were so broad that every where you looked seemed like the proverbial greener pastures. Your perception of what was better continued to morph as the exploding lights show raised the bar.
Jiake’s reactions were what made the night the most memorable. He was awe-struck, and the opossum grin on my face was from sharing that moment with him, and remembering the first time I had seen a show like this, only a year earlier. Throughout the night as the aurora flared his favorite expression was “Look over there!! What is happening?!”. Seeing as the aurora is often indescribable as words, ‘what is happening’ seems a fitting way to describe the mysticism of the flowing shades of green. Jiake and I spent the night under the stars and the Aurora, and what a night it was!
Although the huge solar storm has produced no other auroras in Fairbanks for the last few nights, I’m still hopeful for another good show before the storm passes- and that includes possible shows in the lower 48 yet! The forecast is still high for tonight with more activity planned for early in the week.
This gallery is collected on 09/11/2014 as is the following timelapse which goes from sunset to sunrise.
Well, last night was a stunner here in Alaska. I went out for the Aurora, and was yet again bowled over by just how wonderful it is/was! First things first, I need to toot my horn a bit here. Aurora Tech (http://goo.gl/9x4yk1) insulating technology worked like a charm. Coupled with a Zippo handwarmer and another hand-heater my camera operated for over 2.5 hours at -20 degrees Farenheight on one battery! That’s a tremendous improvement! I was able to shoot 2 different angles for over an hour each, results in a pretty great timelapse and some great photography. That’s at the bottom!
I thought I would do some research for myself on the Aurora and the science behind it. All information that I disseminate here can be found on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aurora_(astronomy)) – sorry for you non-wiki-trusters. But for this instance I think it will be OK 🙂
THE BIG QUESTIONS
What causes the Aurora?
Auroras are a emissions from photons (light) which are in the Earth’s Atmosphere above 80 km (50 mile). They are excited when they collide with solar wind and the magnetospheric particles which are ‘funneled’ and sped up by the Earth’s magnetic lines.
Aurorae are classified as diffuse and discrete.
“The diffuse aurora is a featureless glow in the sky that may not be visible to the naked eye, even on a dark night. It defines the extent of the auroral zone.”
“The discrete aurorae are sharply defined features within the diffuse aurora that vary in brightness from just barely visible to the naked eye, to bright enough to read a newspaper by at night. Discrete aurorae are usually seen in only the night sky, because they are not as bright as the sunlit sky.”
Where do thecolorscome from?
RED: At high latitudes Reds come from excited oxygen.
GREEN : at lower altitudes reds are suppressed and green shines out. Green can be generated by the collision of oxygen and nitrogen.
YELLOW and PINK : Just mixes of red and green!
BLUE : At the lowest altitudes there is no more atomic oxygen and there is lots of nitrogen. It radiates at blue and red – which can give you purple!
What does the Aurora sound like?
Apparently there are records of people ‘hearing’ the aurora! Scientists actually were able to record a sound, which they describe as ‘clapping’ from the aurora. I’m not sure I agree with their analogy of the sound, but have a listen!
I have a question for you, the readers. I have created 2 timelapse videos below of the same aurora from last night. One is played slower than the other. Which do you prefer? I would love to know for future timelapse video making!