Category Archives: Aurora Borealis

The Chena River Aurora

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!

A Tale of Two Auroras

Two nights ago I watched the Aurora with someone for whom it would be their last (for awhile), and last night I brought someone out for their first experience of it ever! Both moments are joyous, I believe and this is the tale of two auroras. Both of the nights have been put together into this timelapse which is undoubtedly one of my best to date. I grin at how well the music matches the event and the footage here gives a certain feeling to the urgency of the Aurora.

On September 25th my friend Jonathan and I headed to Eagle Summit (the same place where I timelapsed the solstice) for the aurora. Its location 120 miles north on the Steese Highway provides huge vistas and no light pollution aside from any passing cars. This Aurora was actually Jonathan’s last of his current career in Alaska, so we wanted to make it memorable 🙂

The new moon on the 25th provided inky darkness for a backdrop and the aurora used green and pink ink to sign its signature in the heavens. We were able to enjoy the brilliance of the Milky Way just as much as the Aurora which presented us an excellent show!

Two lone spruce trees stand watch of the Milky Way which spanned across the sky. Dark skies are one of the hardest things to comprehend, but they are BEAUTIFUL!
Two lone spruce trees stand watch of the Milky Way which spanned across the sky. Dark skies are one of the hardest things to comprehend, but they are BEAUTIFUL!
The explosion of activity over Eagle Summit - whoa!
The explosion of activity over Eagle Summit – whoa!
The aurora just starting to build over Eagle Summit, Alaska on 09/25/2014
The aurora just starting to build over Eagle Summit, Alaska on 09/25/2014
The Aurora streaks over a lone pine tree at Eagle Summit, Alaska in the early AM
The Aurora streaks over a lone spruce tree at Eagle Summit, Alaska in the early AM

On September 26th the hype was high that the Aurora would be booming. In fact, I believe there were shows in Minnesota last night, and may be tonight too. Keep your eyes up!

One of the shots I wanted to highlight was this 30 minute exposure of the aurora. I have been trying to pull of this shot for a very long time, and the moonless night provided just the backdrop! The north star is the non-moving point of this shot. I couldn’t be more happy with it!

I must admit this is a shot I have been trying to pull of for quite awhile, and finally think I nailed it! :D This a 30 minute exposure of a low-grade aurora and the north star. The moonless night kept the exposure from blowing out. This is basically how it came out of the camera. Very cool to see the north star stay still and the rest of them move!!
I must admit this is a shot I have been trying to pull of for quite awhile, and finally think I nailed it! 😀 This a 30 minute exposure of a low-grade aurora and the north star. The moonless night kept the exposure from blowing out. This is basically how it came out of the camera. Very cool to see the north star stay still and the rest of them move!!

I wrangled my housemate Roman to go out for the Aurora with me. He is an international student who had not had the opportunity to see the the Lights before. The show actually burst at 9:30 and presented some great colors including the “watermelon aurora”. To top it off Roman was creative enough to build us a small fire – it was a great night!

This pink aurora is what I like to call the "watermelon auroa" :)
This pink aurora is what I like to call the “watermelon auroa” 🙂
A small fire and the Aurora to keep this group warm. It was Roman's first aurora!
A small fire and the Aurora to keep this group warm. It was Roman’s first aurora!

Why Does the Aurora Flare Up?

The aurora last night was a prime example of what I want to illustrate – why does the aurora flare up? In the timelapse below the aurora dances on the horizon before exploding into one of the best shows I have seen overhead. During my time in Alaska I have tried to glean scientific information on the aurora. Last week I attended a talk by Dr. Akasofu who has been studying the aurora for 50 years, and his talk was focused on the very question I pose here.

So first, the setting. You are on top of a large hill in Alaska and it’s 11:00 PM. As  you stare into the inky darkness of the moonless night a green band of light plays in front of your eyes, and it is OK, but it’s not a jaw-dropper. Often time that is the form of the aurora. But suddenly as you watch the green smudge it goes super-nova expanding rapidly in size, color, and intensity. In fact, it’s so intense that the snow is lit up green and even your coat might be. Over your head and on all sides, the aurora builds in greens and reds. Pulses of light can be seen on the far horizon which flow towards you like a wave over your head breaking in unpredictable patterns. Green light shoots in all directions.

Why did that happen? I always assumed the high intensity auroral moments were created by extra energy (solar wind) entering the system. In contrary to that, the research conducted by Dr. Akasofu and other suggests the aurora is a circuit. Incoming solar wind is pushed against the earths magnetosphere where it reacts in an auroral sub-storm. If more energy is input into the system than can be output it starts to build up in a ‘secondary circuit’. The extra energy is stored and builds up within the atmosphere. When the conditions are right the energy is released in ONE pulse of energy causing the aurora to erupt suddenly. It also explains why eruptions last roughly the same amount of time (1 hour) since a finite amount of energy can be built up.

Based on this model, the aurora goes through three phases. Growth which is aurora formed directly by solar winds and is often manifested by low-grade auroras. Expansion which is the unloading of the secondary circuit and direct solar wind. And finally recovery, which is just driven by solar winds.

I hope you’ve enjoyed some of the science of the aurora! I’ll put my disclaimer on the end that I disseminated the information of the talk to you the best I could, and I hope I got it right!

I added this so you could see something - snow in Fairbanks already! It snows during the afternoon and was heavy enough to stick around in the hills.
I added this so you could see something – snow in Fairbanks already! It snowed during the afternoon and was heavy enough to stick around in the hills.
This is a prime example of auroral eruption when the 'secondary circuit' overloads. This power-ful and fast over head display was remarkable!
This is a prime example of auroral eruption when the ‘secondary circuit’ overloads. This power-ful and fast over head display was remarkable!
I love the split of the lights here and their intensity. The 'white' aurora on the left is actually starting to become over exposed. During this time the snow was lit up green. This was during the eruption phase.
I love the split of the lights here and their intensity. The ‘white’ aurora on the left is actually starting to become over exposed. During this time the snow was lit up green. This was during the eruption phase.
This shot was taken as the aurora started to wind down. However, it still had some color, and was still very active.
This shot was taken as the aurora started to wind down. However, it still had some color, and was still very active.
I love to frame spruce trees into my shots - it's almost as if they're pointing in wonder, too!
I love to frame spruce trees into my shots – it’s almost as if they’re pointing in wonder, too!
A moody green auroral sky. Not unlike a scene from a Ghostbusters movie :)
A moody green auroral sky. Not unlike a scene from a Ghostbusters movie 🙂

Auroral Frenzy

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.

Aurora Nostalgia : A season of Aurora Footage

The days are getting darker here in Fairbanks, Alaska and it is that darkness which has turned my thoughts to the Northern Lights. I can recollect the nights I spent out last winter like a hazy dream. However, reviewing old blog entries brings back the sensation and awe of each experience of dancing greens, yellows, reds, and blues of the aurora which highlighted many nights.

The video above is a compilation of my shooting from the 2013 – 2014 season. I am extraordinarily blessed to witness what I did, and watching this video stirs up many emotions (all of them good, of course). I must say the musical back-drop provided by Enya is profound to me. I hope you will find this footage of one of Nature’s Great Marvels as enjoyable and inspiring as I do.

Last winter presented a steep learning curve for viewing and photographing the aurora. However, this season will bring further improvements to my shooting experience by designing a better insulation system for my camera, and obtaining a lens speed booster which increases the f-stop of the lens and increases its field of view. What more could an Aurora photographer want!

For individual aurora photos and videos you can always visit the main Aurora Page or the posts (links below). Although the “aurora season” means long, dark days too, I cannot say that I am not looking forward to it!

Black Spruce Kennel Aurora

Tanana Aurora

Murphy Dome Aurora

Murphy Dome Aurora 2

Ester Dome Aurora

The Auroral STORM

Ahoy! You might be thinking to yourself “yet another Aurora post”, and I wouldn’t blame you, because I’ve been putting up a lot of them lately! However, this one has a new piece to offer, I hope you’ll check it out!

Last nights Aurora was a true “storm”. The kP (measure of Auroral Activity) was at 5 and there was no chance I was going to miss it! I took myself and my gear to Murphy Dome. This time I snowshoed in a little ways to get away from all the light possible. However, by 11:30 the aurora was yet to show itself! Rather than be disappointed I headed back to the truck and grabbed my sleeping bag. I wasn’t going anywhere.  While waiting for the Aurora I did capture this shot: It’s a 3 minute exposure to deomonstrate the start movement… and also how many of them there are! The skies were completely dark last night due to our new moon. A perfect night for starscapes and the Aurora.

3 minute exposure of the hills north of Murphy Dome. Milky way and a LOT of stars!
3 minute exposure of the hills north of Murphy Dome. Milky way and a LOT of stars!

At about midnight I was still laying out waiting for the Aurora. I was pretty comfortable which makes the eyes heavy. When I woke up at 2 it was finally starting! I caught the beginning of the Aurora which had plenty of reds in it (visible to the naked eye) and was dancing across the sky.

Waiting for the Aurora I spend a lot of time curled up in my sleeping bag. In fact, I got in my bag at 11:30 PM and did not get out until 4:30 the next morning. When I wasnt wathching the Aurora I caught some Zzzz's!
Waiting for the Aurora I spend a lot of time curled up in my sleeping bag. In fact, I got in my bag at 11:30 PM and did not get out until 4:30 the next morning. When I wasnt wathching the Aurora I caught some Zzzz’s!
The reds of the Aurora
The reds of the Aurora

The aurora continued to build, but it was not like an Aurora I have seen yet. There was SO MUCH activity that the whole northern sky became filled with green. Small pieces of bright aurora would pop out of the green fog and dance before disappearing. If I were to face north and stick may arms out straight at my sides, everything in front of my body was green. The whole sky was saturated. These saturated greens do not flicker and dance, but shift like a pale haze.  The video will show you easily the transition from the structured Aurora to the green storm. It reminds me of a movie’s cut scene while looking into a magic ball.

I also think that I got lucky enough to get some blues in the timelapse video, however, that could be wishful thinking. If you think you see them let me know, so I know I’m not just seeing what I want to see! 🙂 . They certainly were not visible to the naked eye… so that only half counts on my Aurora ‘bucket list’ anyway – blues are definitely on the bucket list!

This video has been slowed down considerably from other videos based on the feedback everyone gave. Thanks!

The night ended with me still sitting in the same spot as I had slept. My snowshoes still planted in the snow and the Aurora was still overhead, but you have to call it quits at sometime… right?. What a night!

This photo was taken at the very end of my stay at 4:30 AM. The last pieces of the storm still drifted in the sky.
This photo was taken at the very end of my stay at 4:30 AM. The last pieces of the storm still drifted in the sky.

Aurora Borealis : Science!

Ahoy Readers!

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!

Aurora tech in action! My lunch bag insulator worked perfectly last night. After 2.5 hours my camera was still snapping shots with no stop on one batter! I added a Zippo heater pack and one other hand warmer to the box to help my camera out.
Aurora tech in action! My lunch bag insulator worked perfectly last night. After 2.5 hours my camera was still snapping shots with no stop on one batter! I added a Zippo heater pack and one other hand warmer to the box to help my camera out.

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.

Aurora terms:

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 the colors come 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!

Source: http://www.space.com/16498-northern-lights-clapping-sound-explained.html

What colors are the most common?

Apparent ranking of colors is this :

Green –> Pink –> Pure Red –> Yellow –> Blue

I have never seen blue!!

Images from last night:

Northern Lights over Tanana River, Fairbanks, AK 02/07 - 02/08/14
Northern Lights over Tanana River, Fairbanks, AK 02/07 – 02/08/14
Northern Lights over Tanana River, Fairbanks, AK 02/07 - 02/08/14
Northern Lights over Tanana River, Fairbanks, AK 02/07 – 02/08/14
Northern Lights over Tanana River, Fairbanks, AK 02/07 - 02/08/14
Northern Lights over Tanana River, Fairbanks, AK 02/07 – 02/08/14
Northern Lights over Tanana River, Fairbanks, AK 02/07 - 02/08/14
Northern Lights over Tanana River, Fairbanks, AK 02/07 – 02/08/14

Slower, or faster?

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!

 

School, Hat-trick on Burbot, Level 4 Aurora : A Great Day to Be in Alaska

Ahoy Readers! It is 3:47 AM in AK, and I have been sitting out all night enjoying a level 4 Aurora. That is how my day ended, but it began with class until 11 and then burbot fishing from 12- 1:30 – followed by burbot cleaning, because I got three today! The largest was a true ‘trophy’ of the burbot world and was 31 inches long. Tonight the burbot turned into a stirfry with onions, carrots, green pepper and tomato. Quite tasty!

Three burbot day! The largest is 31 inches, and the smallest... quite small! Unfortunately there is no catch and release when fishing overnight lines.
Three burbot day! The largest is 31 inches, and the smallest… quite small! Unfortunately there is no catch and release when fishing overnight lines.
A bruiser burbot! 31 inches!
A bruiser burbot! 31 inches!

After dinner I was looking forward to a night of the Aurora. I was sorely disappointed when unexpected clouds began to roll in at 3:00 PM. I need to have a discussion with the weatherman around here because they consistently blow the cloud cover forecast. However, by about 10 the clouds were cleared off to the north, which gave me hope to see the aurora. I headed to Murphy Dome, my favorite borealis perch, and when I got there it had already started! The aurora tonight was had an added twist of some cloud cover. I was a bit disappointed by that at first, but soon realized it had its benefits! A green ‘lightening’ storm was happening over head. The thin clouds were lit up much like the clouds of a thunderstorm. The effect was really quite stunning. I think that the timelapse video below captures that!

But, what is a timelapse? I use it a lot, and thought I would give a quick tutorial for those unacquainted! It is one of my favorite techniques to shoot, because it allows me to be hands-off with the camera and enjoy whats around me. The camera does a majority of the work! To understand a timelapse you have to first understand a movie. Movies are traditionally shot at about 24fps (I believe that’s correct, but let me know if I am not). That means every second 24 frames are shot and displayed. A timelapse, rather than shoot in ‘real time’ (ie: 24 fps), takes shots over an extended period of time and then combines them together at 24 fps. So, for example : tonight I was shooting 20 second exposures (22mm, f/2.8, 800 ISO) and taking one shot every 25 seconds. A little bit of simple math of 24 (frames)x25(seconds between each shot) gives us 600 seconds for every second of compiled video. In essence, that means for every second of video you are seeing 10 minutes of ‘real life’. That makes time pass pretty quickly!

I had a new, added benefit tonight. I am shooting my new Tokina 11-16. This is the first time I have mounted it to my OmD Em5, and wanted to give a little review for any Micro Four Thirds users. The lens shoots almost perfectly on the MFT system. One thing I noticed was some distortion on the edges. Definitely keep your shots in the center of the lens. This contradicts what I read about the lens being clean from edge to edge. Even adapted this lense shoots very fast and is a markable step up from my 12-50 EZ kit lens which I have traditionally used due to its viewing area. And, on the topic of viewing area, I didn’t seem to lose any of the 108 degree specified by the manufacture. I am shooting a Nikon Tokina, and was a bit worried I would lose some of the width due to adapting it up, but that didn’t happen. The only beef I have with the adapter is that it didn’t open the aperture all the way to 2.8. Rather, I had to wedge a piece of cardboard into the aperture expander to keep it open. I can adjust my aperature setting digitally with the MFT system, so it doesn’t really bother me that much. I basically want to shoot it wide open anyway. Overall though, I couldn’t be more happy with the lens for this Aurora shooting!

So, without further ado here is the Aurora from tonight. There is a good Aurora forecast coming up. If you are in Alaska, keep you eyes to the sky. I know I will be!