Whoa! Now that was an aurora to remember

Photographers watch and photograph the finest display of northern lights in years from Brighton Beach along Lake Superior in Duluth, Minn. last night. Details for this and other photos: 17mm or 35mm lens at f/2.8, ISO 1600 and 15 seconds exposure. Photo: Bob King

The northern lights were spectacular last night across northern Minnesota! Just by chance, a fellow photographer and I were teaching a class on night sky photography, and our group of 13 headed down to the rocky shore of Lake Superior outside the city of Duluth to practice taking pictures of the moon and stars. The partly cloudy sky made for some cool time exposures of stars and moving clouds.

While we knew that the NOAA space weather service had forecast aurora based on observations of recent flares in several large sunspot groups, you can never be absolutely certain that one will materialize. Exactly how Earth’s magnetic field interacts with charged particles from the sun can change unexpectedly and defy predictions. This time however, the forecasters were dead-on.

A cascade of green auroral rays lights up the northeastern sky early this morning at Brighton Beach in Duluth, Minn. Photo: Bob King

Then about 10:30 p.m., when the eastern sky should have been dark, I noticed an odd glow as if the moon were about to rise. Wait a minute. Since the moon was at first quarter phase and setting in the west, this had to be something else. We checked the its color by taking a few quick time exposures with our cameras. Yes! Every display window glowed with the telltale green of excited oxygen molecules, a clear indication that the aurora was afoot. While dim auroras appear colorless to the eye, a sensitive camera chip easily records color in a time exposure photo.

The first bright patch of rays that galvanized the group and had everyone running back to their cameras. Photo: Bob King

Clouds came and went as the soft, diffuse glow swelled over the next hour to fill most of the northern sky. In time, the glow intensified, occasionally erupting into short arcs pierced with shimmering rays. Between quiet conversion, we clicked away, our camera LCD screens flicking on and off like fireflies as each person adjusted exposure and composition.

Around 12:30, after swinging to and fro between ‘quiet’ glows and sudden bright arcs, a vast, tornadic display of rays gathered in the east and surged straight to the zenith. It took our collective breath away and may have even caught the attention of the teens sitting nearby quietly texting one another all night.

A brilliant green, moving arc materialized briefly in the northern sky around 1:15 a.m. Even Jupiter got into the act (right), casting a ray of its own on the waters of Lake Superior. Photos: Bob King

Lake Superior reflected the pulsing lights above as Jupiter rose in the east. Our group was as rooted to that pebbly beach as the legs of our tripods – no one dared leaves less they miss another outburst.

The aurora never quit. More surges and arcs appeared low in the north, while rays twirled around nearly overhead in a faint coronal display. By 1:45 things quieted down enough that we could start to hear those little voices inside telling us to either get some sleep or maybe drive to a Perkins for a bite to eat. All that enjoyment took a surprising amount of energy.

I got home around 2 and watched the waning glow until my little voice said it was time for bed. While the big storm is now subsiding, there’s a chance for some additional aurora tonight. Be sure to take a look up just in case.

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About astrobob

My name is Bob King and I work at the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minn. as a photographer and photo editor. I'm also an amateur astronomer and have been keen on the sky since age 11. My modest credentials include membership in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) where I'm a regular contributor, International Meteorite Collectors Assn. and Arrowhead Astronomical Society. I also teach community education astronomy classes at our local planetarium.

12 thoughts on “Whoa! Now that was an aurora to remember

  1. Thank you again for such a wonderful workshop. It was a thrill to see the northern lights again after not seeing them for several years.
    Althought my son and I left before the light show was finished, we were very fortunate to stop at a wayside rest along Split Rock River and took several more photos.
    This was a night to remember!

    • I’m sorry to hear that Tina. We battled the clouds here for a while and no doubt missed some nice stuff, but there were openings and then they finally parted.

  2. Wow! I’m green with envy (pun entirely intended) but those are some fantastic pictures, Bob. I’ll bet you just turned 13 people into instant fans of night photography.

    • I love puns, Dan. It really did work out nice for the participants. We had plenty of time to work out the kinks, so I’m sure they all came back with nice photos.

  3. hi bob, didn’t see the auroral display last night: not even sure if it could have been seen in the urban area in which I live. but your experience brings back memories of the spectacular displays that I saw when living in rural western Mn many yrs ago. Some of which arced over most of the sky. A little aside that you might find amusing. Never could convince my mother that northern lights were not caused by light shining off the ice in the Arctic. She just couldn’t “cotton” to the notion that aurora were caused by the effects of solar flares in the upper, upper atmosphere.

    • Thomas, the arctic ice explanation has a certain poetic allure I think. I wondered as we watched the lights, how much might have been visible closer to downtown. We were about 6 miles from city center and facing away to the east and north, where there’s not much more than woods and water.

  4. The dancing lights of the aurora was a wonderful surprise along with Jupiter rising so brilliantly over Lake Superior, satellites whizzing overhead, and a few “falling stars” crashing through the night sky. I can’t believe I was there and am still pinching myself. Thank you so much for the adventure last night. It was great

  5. Got off work about midnight-30 and, while driving south to Blackhoof Twp in Carlton Co from Duluth, I noticed the show when I glanced over my shoulder to see something that caught my eye to the northeast. Most nights I drive 55 all the way home to conserve gas…but not that night! Got home, grabbed a Corona from the fridge and my significant other and I sat out on the front porch swing, which faces North, and we watched for the next hour. Usually I’d be content with just the stars and Milky Way to take in since we have a big sky with no city lights, so this was a complete bonus. My only regret was that we weren’t up on Elbow Lake, north of Cook to see this spectacular event and see the Aurora reflecting off the water.

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