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:
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!
The starting purple pillar of sun-kissed Aurora
The purple of the aurora spread out across the sky.
Earlier in the night the sun-kissed aurora could be seen on the left edges
Green swirls of aurora combined with some Day Aurora on the left
The height of this aurora is incredible!
Here’s a wider shot of the aurora as the purple developed
A strong pillar of Daylight Aurora
A double-band of sun-kissed aurora!
Crooning to the aurora!!
I love how this dead black spruce lines up with the aurora.
My trusty axe in front of the aurora!
The moon casting a long shadow under my guitar and the Lights
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.
4 image stitch of the aurora
A brilliant green curtain of aurora stretches across the moon.
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
Driving winds pushed up a large snow drift. What a windy night!
“Divide” – the aurora is seemingly split in half by the points of this spruce!
A full sky of red and green over Murphy Dome, Alaska
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
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 🙂
I want to share a few images with you from the aurora a few nights ago. I spent the night shooting some great aurora, and in the downtimes of the show played around with a couple of fun, long-exposure techniques. So, as a result some of these aren’t my ‘normal’ aurora shot with a static tripod for a period of time.
First, in these two images I performed what I am calling a “focal pull”. During the exposure which lasted 15 seconds I moved the focal length from 16mm to 11mm. I chose objects to be featured at the center of the image, however, everything else becomes very blurry, but the blurs still hold the shape of the original object. It feels like we are entering lightspeed! What I like about the effect is how the star lines draw your eye to the center of the image. It certainly is an abstract technique!
In these next two images I did a pan across the landscape during the long exposure. This, in effect, exposed the standing trees in multiple locations on the camera’s sensor and created the ghost-like trees shown. What I really like about the effect is this how it makes you perceive the dark. It’s eerie and full of shadows – these images seem to capture that for me. This stand of spruce was recently thinned – perhaps these are the ghosts of trees that once were.
Both of these artful experiments, and are first attempts at techniques I would like to continue to develop. So, now that I have explained and showed my experiment I would love to know what you think! What do you find appealing about these images? What don’t you like? What else could I try? One of the appealing aspects of these techniques to me is that noone does them! Naturally, I would love to be a pioneer of it, and your feedback is helpful!
For the rest of the night I did not take any more time to mess around with my aurora photography. This was the first night of a high amount of incoming activity. NOAA had released a ‘geomagnetic storm warning‘ for December 19-22 based on incoming coronal mass ejections (CME) from the sun in the previous days. This night was the first that these particles were scheduled to produce a show. As night progressed, the aurora came in fits-and-spurts (I think due to a flipping magnetic field which controls aurora intensity). When it was ‘on’ it was really on! And I wanted to make sure I captured that. The night ended up with some great reds and an aurora ‘selflie’ on one of the sleds from Black Spruce Dog Sledding.
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.
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!
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 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!