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

15 thoughts on “On the Frontline with the Aurora”

    1. Thanks Pete, I appreciate it! I worked hard to convey what the night was like, and think the imagery turned out excellent too :). Thanks for stopping by!

  1. Green and red aurora flashes through the openings in the white clouds….creative and delightful to the eye. This is another WOW, Ian.

  2. Ian, after viewing this, I found myself in a daze, not only because of the awesome pictures, but also because of the story. Not only did I read that you were descending through thigh high deep snow, I saw you doing it!. You are awesome!!

  3. You seem to be so fascinated with the aurora but I am completely fascinated by your writing. The pictures are beautiful but the writing is brilliant.

    1. Thanks Harriet! I know I have been toting the blog as “Photography and Writing”, and I feel like I have a good handle on the photography. Great to know the writing is on par too!

      In regards to the aurora, I’m completely addicted to it, however, will let it be known that last night the show was SPECTACULAR, and for the first time ever I decided to sleep instead of go out for photography. I needed it!

      Thanks for stopping by, great to hear from you!

  4. Ian, I was taken by the fantastic arrray of moving color and the bright nearly full moon. How does the moon itslef figure into such a display? So glad you’re our man in Alsaka feeding us with such spectacular panormas,

    1. Thanks Peter! For many aurora watchers the moon is a huge drag. I have NEVER seen a community of people complain about a big, beautiful full moon as much as the aurora community does! Haha. It definitely plays strongly into the brilliance of the aurora however, and on a night like this one will out compete a moderate aurora.

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