It has been awhile since you’ve heard from me, but all of that is about to change as I get my blog’n legs back under me. Until now I have been prioritizing my thesis which has now been defended. There will be several upcoming articles on the results of my work. I see no use in writing it if noone is reading it! I deem the upcoming articles as science communication”, and I hope you will find them informative.
Now onto the meat of this entry. Yesterday was my first day back in Fairbanks after being away for over 10 days. When I left, the remnants of a huge September snowstorm (17″) still lingered on the ground in low, shaded areas, but for the most part the ground was barren. It is amazing how only 10 days can change that. We now have 16″ of pure powder on the ground which is maintained by cold nights. Yesterday morning when I awoke it was -15F with a promise from forecasters that those temperatures will continue through at least this week. A seasonally late sunrise began at 9:15, and by noon the low light illuminated the tree tops and extenuated the shadows. I nearly skipped with joy into the spruce bog behind my house where snow hung on the trees. I passed under trees that with a touch would have doused me in snow, and found pure joy in the beauty of this winter wonderland.
Later that night the landscape of refracting light and black spruce shadows transitioned to twinkling stars shining through a moonless night. I retraced my steps from only a few hours earlier and watched as the aurora built to the north. I watched for awhile and smiled outwardly at my knowledge of the stark contrast in light from just hours earlier.
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!
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.
Driving winds pushed up a large snow drift. What a windy night!
Purple Aurora – More than just red – there are some purples in the top of this aurora!
All shades of the aurora above a whipping spruce top
A full sky of red and green over Murphy Dome, Alaska
“Divide” – the aurora is seemingly split in half by the points of this spruce!
A brilliant green curtain of aurora stretches across the moon.
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.
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!
The big dipper hangs over a the trees and in the aurora
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.