Category Archives: Northern Lights

Autumnal Aurora

I jumped when my alarm went off at 11:30 PM, and I looked at my surroundings to remind myself where I was. The sleeping bag wrapped around me and my reclined seat reinforced I was in my truck as my blurry eyes brought the steering wheel in focus. My memories flooded back to me; I arrived 30 minutes ago, and with no aurora in sight had set an alarm and took a nap. I was expectant that a G2 storm forecast was going to pay out, and as I peered out of trucks window it seemed I was in luck. The aurora was starting to show a band high in the sky. I turned the ignition, and drove down the road to find the “perfect”, golden tree – my goal for the night was to fuse autumn colors and the aurora together.

I stood on the road with my head craned up, watching a beautiful, green aurora band overhead. This aurora was  Mr. Jekyll which soon morphed into Mr. Hyde – albeit a beautiful version of him.  I was not ready for the full force of the aurora as it transformed the sky into a green and pink blanket of shimmering, dancing lights so different than what I had been looking at minutes earlier.  The energy that rolled overhead, I learned later, was the result of a monstrous, KP7 event, that pushed the aurora into Washington and the Midwest.  I was so overwhelmed by the aurora that I expressed myself by simultaneously singing, praying, and taking pictures by myself under the vast display of lights. For those who know me, you might guess that I was also grinning broadly from ear-to-ear. My smile would not have disappointed you!

For parts of the night, my only focus was to capture the overhead aurora corona to the best of my ability. The last time I successfully captured the corona was in Denali National Park last year. I couldn’t be more happy to show you this gallery of images from last night  – there were many more taken! The gallery is chronological, and hopefully gives a sense of the scale of the aurora and how quickly it built. These images are taken at 9mm, and hence have a ~120 degree field of view!

I am continuing to boost my online portfolio, so please stop by if you have a moment! A selection of these images has been added to my Fine Arts America Photo Gallery for purchase. Thank-you for your consideration!

Fine Arts America Photo Gallery

Chasing the Minnesota Aurora

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.

Moon through the clouds
The first night that I chased the aurora, a strong wing was rapidly pushing the clouds past this moon, which was fortunately setting. I really like the wind in the trees of this particular shot, as well as the long shadow cast by the moon.
Starlapse and Aurora
This star spin shot captures a 1.5 hours timelapse of star movement in the sky. Fortunately I captured the faint glow of aurora on low on the horizon, and directly below the pivotal star – the North Star.

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!

Midwest Milky Way
This image does a nice job of capturing a single image of the Milky Way. However, I would like to find darker skies. By taking multiple shots with the camera on the same plane, I can stick them together into the results below.
Milky Way Stretch
Here is one of the things I am struggling with in capturing a full panorama of the Milky Way. This image has a gorgeous amount of contrast, however, after stitching, I did not have enough horizon to create an image that can be cropped well. I would love to get feedback on the best way to straighten and correct these images.
Milky Way Panorama
This image is the best example I have of stitching the Milky Way, but is far from the entire arch. I do really like the bit of aurora that shows up here. Hopefully I can apply what I learned in my next attempt!
Aurora KP 6 Central Minnesota
This image of the aurora was taken in Rice, Minnesota during a G2 auroral storm. If it weren’t for the moon and the haze it would have been a much nicer show!

I have done a lot to curate my aurora gallery on Fine Art America. I would love if you checked it out!

 

Click here to View my professional aurora borealis gallery on Fine Art America

The Grand Re-Opening

Hello Everyone!

I’ve been hard at it on the website in the last 2 weeks, and I am very, very excited to give you a tour of the results.  I would love to get your feedback on the site. First off, how about the color scheme? Took me awhile to settle on it, and customize it to this point! An untested piece of this site, is to see if all of the email subscriptions were transferred correctly. If you are receiving this via email and could let me know you got it, that would be great!

Videos

The days of hosting videos on my website are over. I have created a YouTube Channel (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCiqds-5iivj9DMfUWM1cRkA) which will host all new videos, and I’ll implement them into the blog. If you are on YouTube be sure to follow the channel! I am far from transitioning all video content to YouTube, so please bear with me if content is unavailable. The great thing is that YouTube videos are very easy to share, and are much easier for people to find.

Blog

In the past I have been very frustrated with how quickly content becomes buried once published. I have established a new page which features all blog posts and can be simply scrolled through. Although it is not the 100% ideal situation (which is unattainable as it involves ESP), I hope you will be able to search for and scroll through old posts much more easily here http://ianajohnson.com/posts/

Professionally Geared

This little blog of mine has grown up a lot. It was once a bit of data planted on the internet, and has transformed into a sequoia tree of information, images, and videos. Seeing as I’m proud of all the content post,  I have tailored it as a professional website/portfolio. As such you can view a short image portfolio (http://ianajohnson.com/faa/index.php/portfolio/),  and my scientific background (http://ianajohnson.com/professional-experience/).

Imagery Sales

An absolutely new realm for me and a very exciting part of this upgrade is the opportunity to sell imagery. By establishing an account through Fine Art America, some of the content featured on this site will be available for purchase. My current galleries there contain ~50 images of the >300 I would like to upload. The images exemplify all themes of this blog including wildlife, aurora, and overall natural beauty. Most galleries are updated daily as I take the time to upload the images. At this time all sales will be used to fund the purchase of a Nikon D810 (perhaps the last camera I will ever need to own). The camera comes with capabilities almost second to none, and will further enhance the products I can offer here. The sales side of my website can be found at http://ianajohnson.com/faa/. Let me know if you find the design user friendly!

In line with imagery sales, and in hopes of funding a camera, I am considering creating a calendar of seasonal images throughout Alaska. Although I have not settled on a final product, I would love to hear if you have interest. Mostly it is so I can determine if there is a market – don’t worry – your interest is a 100% non-committal agreement!

Future Content

The amount of time spent to create this new website has left me with no time to create new posts. So, here is a sneak preview! I was very fortunate to engage in Alaska’s personal-use fishery. I will be writing about my experiences at Chitina River.

The personal use fishery at Chitina River allows you to literally scoop them from the raging waters.
The personal use fishery at Chitina River allows you to literally scoop them from the raging waters.

Second, my curiosity about the diversity of mushrooms was gratified to have an awesome mycologist connection. I’m going to take you for a walk through a small section of Alaskan fungal diversity!

A short walk through the woods will yield a diversity of mushroom colors and shapes that will boggle the mind. Lots of mushrooms coming your way soon!
A short walk through the woods will yield a diversity of mushroom colors and shapes that will boggle the mind. Lots of mushrooms coming your way soon!

 

The Aurora Gets the Last Laugh

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!

An Ode to the 2015 – 2015 Aurora Season

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.

Aurora Top 20:

The Sun-kissed Aurora

I’ve got some new aurora science and colors for you. On Saturday night the aurora turned a royal purple in a show like I have never seen before! I have often heard that the blues of the aurora are most often seen in spring or fall, but did not know until recently the scientific reason behind that observation. In step the science of the Sun-kissed aurora. Known as “Sun Aurora” or “Day Aurora” the blues seen in the photo below are a result of the sun’s rays reacting with the upper plasma of the aurora (webexhibit.org). The highest chance of that occurring is in the spring or fall when our nights are relatively short and the aurora begins in the twilight hours. On the warm March night when I observed the phenomenon, the purple started out as a single pillar which was fairly dim to the eye, but discernible against the black of the stars. From the pillar it spread smoothly across the sky like aurora jelly on its celestial toast. After only ten minutes the purple had faded away as the sun moved lower behind the planet.  

Be sure to check out a timelapse of the night:

Purple Aurora Comparison
Since I have seen other purple aurora shots before, and assumed they were photo-shopped, I have decided to show you what the original image looked like right out of the camera. I did not have to touch it up much!

During the night I got the opportunity to mix together two of my passions. Many know that I’m avid musician, and I enjoyed spicing up the shoot for the night with my trusty guitar. If only my skills were good enough to play Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”. It certainly has an appropriate title for the night! I hope you enjoy the aurora selfie and guitar in the foreground, I would love to know what you think of those shots!

On the Frontline with the Aurora

As fast I could muster, my batteries, cards, camera, and tripod were quickly gathered for my unplanned trip. With my boots pulled on and winter clothes layered, I hurried to my truck, started the engine, and backed out out of my spot without even letting the engine warm. I justified that it was worth the wear and tear on the vehicle because it was imperative to hurry out of Fairbanks to see what I hoped would be a stunning aurora. My justifications ended up being correct, but I didn’t know I was in for my most memorable night of the aurora season. 

During the afternoon, snow had been falling heavily, and was forecasted to do so through the evening with strong winds in tow. Cloud cover was going to hide the effects of a G1 storm from solar winds emitting from a coronal hole. However, in opposition to the forecast, the skies opened up and revealed crimson red and shining green, and resulted in my rapid exodus from the house. Knowing that the aurora can disappear as quickly as it starts, I was anxious to reach my shooting spot on Old Murphy Dome Road.

The wind shook the truck as I parked, and snow laid down during the afternoon was transformed into biting crystals which targeted and stung any open skin; they were catalyzed by 30 mile per hour winds which gusted to 45. However, it was easy to forget the inconvenience of the wind, because my focus was on the aurora which stretched in front of me. Spanning across the sky it shimmered and danced, and patches of the heavens were lit in crimson red. Grabbing my camera, and stuffing some extra batteries into a chest pocket, I descended through thigh deep snow and set up my tripod. I simultaneously clicked my shutter and watched the sky. Aurora photography is a pretty active endeavor. I always make sure to address any “greener pastures”, so as the aurora constantly waxed and waned in front of me I fiddled constantly with camera settings and position.

As I sat and watched the aurora the most extraordinary thing happened : it went completely dark. I do not mean the aurora, I mean the whole landscape. I had not considered how bright the moon was until the clouds smothered its light. In fact, as I watched the dazzling light of the moon reappear, I realized I was on the edge of the weather and cloud front which appeared to be divided by the ridge line of Old Murphy Dome. Low clouds over the ridge line were pushed northeast by the howling winds like race cars, and applied a filter to the moon’s light as they moved past with a kaleidoscopic effect. The moon beams were composed of euphoria, or at least they must have been, because that is what I felt as I watched the soft moonlight dance across the snow like rays of the sun. Wave after wave of moonlight started to the south and passed over me. For ninety minutes I sat on the edge of the frontline, and the clouds provided opposing motion to the fluid dance of the aurora. It was amazing to consider that the solar winds which controlled the aurora, also created the wind on the ground which was still pushing up clouds of biting crystals.

I have never been in a more dynamic nightscape. The pushing wind, racing clouds, dancing aurora, and light of the moon were a pleasure to be a part of. The chance that I would sit along such a dynamic front may never happen again!

A timelapse of being on the “front line” during tonight’s aurora show. Note those moving clouds and the ground-storm:

Below is a gallery of the “snow storm” and the “aurora storm” from today. Be sure to click on images to enlarge them.

A downy woodpecker looks on at the snow falls.
A downy woodpecker looks on at the snow falls.
It is going to take more than a little snow to stop a feisty red-squirrel!
It is going to take more than a little snow to stop a feisty red-squirrel!
A Black-capped Chicadee hunkers down in the snow
A Black-capped Chicadee hunkers down in the snow
A spruce tree bears the burden of the winter
A spruce tree bears the burden of the winter

Big Sky Aurora

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.

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“Looking Through” The black spruces bent with show creating arches to view a phenomenon
Aurora Big Swirl
A huge arching swirl of aurora
Sustainable Village Aurora Borealis Panorama
Aurora band over the Sustainable Village
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A brilliant band or aurora bisects a hunched black spruce

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February 16th, 2015 : The “Coronal Hole” Red Aurora

Traditionally I think of the aurora being generated from a sun event. Often C-class flares, M-class flares, and X-class flares (the largest) hurtle plasma towards at the earth resulting in brilliant auroras. I have dug into the science of auroras during previous posts, and wrote about some of the science of the auroral colors and why the aurora can go from a nice show to a great show.  However, last nights aurora event was generated by a “Coronal Hole” in the sun. That term was new to me, and although it sounds like a headline from an end of days article, it’s really not that bad!

Coronal holes are a simple concept. The sun normally has a stable magnetic field that controls solar winds and energy from the sun. During a coronal hole event, magnetic field lines extend far away from the sun and allow high speed solar winds to escape. Solar wind speeds may exceed 10,000,000 km/hr! Translating that to terms I understand more, solar winds can travel at 500 miles/second. That’s a quick commute to work, or in this case the earth!  If the coronal hole is ‘geo-effective’ it means that those solar winds are headed towards our planet. These events can lead to a lot of high energy resulting in red and multicolored auroras even during times of low solar activity. (http://www.spaceweatherlive.com/en/help/what-is-a-coronal-hole, http://www.exploratorium.edu/spaceweather/holes.html)

Last night’s show was stopped at 10:30 due to clouds over Fairbanks. From 8:30 – 10:30 it remained subtle, but beautiful. The high energy from the coronal hole produced a quickly changing, but not well defined red aurora. I hope you enjoy!

February 7th : Dog Day in Alaska/ Live Aurora Footage

Saturday was a dog day for me in Alaska. When my friend Brandon and I arrived at noon to Black Spruce Dogsledding the dogs greeted us with baying and loud voices. Or mission for the day :do some mushing and then shoot some night sequences of the dogs and mushing for an upcoming video.

My confidence was much higher from the last time I had been mushing. As my six dog team took off the same adrenaline rush hit me, but my newly acquired skills reigned the excited dogs to a more reasonable pace. My heel weighed on the drag a bit to control the sled speed, and my toe sat on the runner. The stance allows stability around turns and maintains control on the sled during downhills, it is a very useful position!  As we headed into a north wind the -40 below windchills were exacerbated by the movement of the dogs. Any bare skin was out of the question! I pulled up my facemask over the tip of my nose and adjusted my ski goggles. Once encased inside of my cocoon I stayed very warm, in fact, my hands broke a sweat due to the activity!

Of course the temperatures were very limiting for shooting, but I do have some stills of the day which capture the dogs and some of the cold!

February 7th : Sled dog at Black Spruce Dog Sledding
February 7th : Sled dog at Black Spruce Dog Sledding
Stopped along the way for this trail groomer, and to take a chance to warm up! Photo Credit : Brandon Donnelly.
Stopped along the way for this trail groomer, and to take a chance to warm up! Photo Credit : Brandon Donnelly.
Made it through the cold temps -
Brandon made it through the cold temps.
These pups are ready for a run!
These pups are ready for a run!
The eyes of sled dogs are so beautiful!
The eyes of sled dogs are so beautiful!

We settled into the house after our 9 mile mush and warmed up with some hot supper, by the time we stepped outside again at 8PM, magic was beginning to happen in the sky.  A faint rivlet of aurora was growing, and by 10:15 had grown to a flowing stream which  then topped its banks! Ribbons of pink, green, and purple aurora flowed and dashed across the sky. The show lasted for 15 minutes, and then mysteriously faded away. Sometimes seeing the best aurora is just about being at the right place at the right time. The images I captured that night are easily some of the most colorful and sharp to date! What a show!

Part of what I have to offer today is footage shot with Brandon’s Sony A7S. This camera can almost literally see in the dark. Although the footage is not of the highest quality possible (for that check out Ronn Murray’s incredible work!), I couldn’t be MORE happy to catch some real-time auroras for you! These have been sped up to make it a bit more interesting to watch (since we didn’t catch the show at the most epic point), but allows you to see all of the movements, rather than what you miss in the timelapse!

Last, but not least, I have a new photo project! You can  check it out at the 2015 Photo Project!

February 8th : Aurora borealis panorama. Taken 02/07 at 10:30 PM, however, since the aurora extended past midnight I'm counting it for the 8th
February 8th : Aurora borealis panorama. Taken 02/07 at 10:30 PM, however, since the aurora extended past midnight I’m counting it for the 8th
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Certainly one of my favorites shots to date! The blues, purples and pinks here are all visible to the naked eye too. A Stunning show!
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Brandon posing for an Aurora shot.
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A bright band of pink lights up the bottom of this aurora. The reason this shot feels ‘fuzzy’ is the aurora was moving too fast for the exposure length. BUT, it still captured a lot of great color!

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