The Negative 40F Aurora Club

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!

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 🙂

At 1:30 AM the temperatures were hanging around 36 below F (-38C).
At 1:30 AM the temperatures were hanging around 36 below F (-38C).
When I awoke in the morning the temperatures had dipped to -40 and humidity was holding at 5%!
When I awoke in the morning the temperatures had dipped to -40 and humidity was holding at 5%!

4 thoughts on “The Negative 40F Aurora Club”

  1. It’s always fascinating to me how you can capture so much ambient landscape light…and keep it balanced with the ever-wavering Aurora. I think your choice of your favorite-ever Aurora shot is a good choice. Crisp, tremendous color saturation, good composition. Mr Moon also seemed to sneak a cameo; Which brings me back to the comment about light balance above…how did you keep Mr Moon from burning the shot?

    1. Moon ends up being a direct function of ISO and exposure time. I was shooting ISO 800 for this shot, and at that level I have about 15 seconds before the moon will start to blow it out. In contrast, ISO 1600 would probably give me about 10 seconds.

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