Quick jaunt to Alaska for last night’s aurora plus a forecast

Mulitple curtains of aurora were at times so bright they turned the snow green. Photo taken last night March 21, 2014 outside Fairbanks. Details: Canon 5D, Mark II, ISO 800 to 3200, 24mm F1.4 Lens, 5 sec to 15 second. Credit: John Chumack

Only skywatchers living in the Arctic witnessed last night’s aurora. All quiet here in the Midwest, where the auroral oval never budged from its comfort zone north of 55 degrees latitude.

Chumack and group watched the aurora dance and sway from 9:30 p.m. until 4:00am. Credit: John Chumack

John Chumack, Ohio astrophotographer, saw the sky go crazy. Last night he led an aurora photo tour and workshop near Fairbanks, Alaska. Tucked well within the oval at 65 degrees N his group witnessed a spectacular display of northern lights.

Plot of the northern auroral oval at 2:21 a.m. Alaska time this morning March 22. The oval extends over the city of Fairbanks but is far from the lower 48. Credit: NOAA

There were no alerts and no surprise electron-proton packages from the sun.Folks living in the far north can see the aurora almost every night of the year because they’re “under” or near the permanent cap of aurora called the northern auroral oval.

There’s also a southern version centered over Antarctica that can expand northward during solar storms to cast curtains of southern lights over southern South America and New Zealand.

Another view of last night’s aurora in a different palette of colors. Credit: John Chumack

Southern and northern ovals are similar in extent during both quiet and stormy times but not identical. Scientists discovered the disparity in data gathered by NASA’s Polar and IMAGE spacecraft (Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration) when the probes observed both ovals simultaneously in the early 2000s.

Auroral ovals in both northern and southern hemispheres photographed in UV light by the Polar spacecraft. Ovals are ring-shaped areas high in Earth’s atmosphere where high speed particles from the solar wind are directed by the planet’s magnetic field into the atmosphere. Molecules struck by the particles give off light that creates the aurora. Credit: NASA

Come to find out, auroral ovals shift in opposite directions to each other depending on the orientation of the interplanetary magnetic field (IMF).

The IMF comes entangled in the steady stream of particles from the sun called the solar wind and possesses a magnetic field similar to the one in a simple bar magnet with north and south poles. Sometimes that field point south, sometimes north.

The ovals also shifted in opposite directions depending on how far the north magnetic pole (located in n. Canada) leaned toward the sun, making it easier at times for the solar wind to penetrate Earth’s magnetic bubble in the southern hemisphere than in the northern. This caused the southern oval to shift toward the sun and the northern to stay put.

The Earth’s outer spinning liquid core of metallic iron and nickel creates a magnetic field around the planet much like that around a bar magnet. Solar particles that penetrate the field follow the field lines into the upper atmosphere to spark auroras. The north pole of the magnet is shifted slightly from the geographic north pole. Credit and copyright: Peter Reid

“What was most surprising was that both the northern and southern auroral ovals were leaning toward the dawn (morning) side of the Earth for this event. The scientists suspect the leaning may be related to “imperfections” of the Earth’s magnetic field,” according to a NASA press release on the topic.

Although auroras are firing up again tonight over northern Scandinavia and Siberia, conditions are expected to remain “quiet” across the northern U.S. for at least the next two nights. I always take my forecasts with a grain of salt and pull the curtain back for a look anyway. Surprises are rampant when it comes to this stuff.

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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.

7 thoughts on “Quick jaunt to Alaska for last night’s aurora plus a forecast

  1. Perhaps blog readers would like to know that Vesta and Ceres are located EXTREMELY close together (apparently, in the sky, from our point of view) these days and should pretty much remain so as they both approach opposition next month. I finally found them in binos Saturday AM. CERTAIN i saw Vesta, and pretty sure i saw Ceres, especially with averted vision, despite my moderately-light-polluted sky. Last night i tried to resolve Pallas but honestly it was between two stars of similar brightness and using averted vision i thought i could probably see two points of light so not sure which those were, anything beyond that was too tough. Oh, for darker skies.

    • Sean,
      Thanks for the heads up. I’ve been keeping my eye on the pair this month and am planning a blog with maps on finding them in April when they’re much closer together, higher in the sky earlier in the evening and brighter.

  2. The way Comet Jacques is behaving, I would not be surprised if it is the best comet of 2014. My prediction thus far is at it’s brightest in early July at magnitude 4, we may pick it up later that month at 5. It will be excellently placed for us in August in September as I think that the magnitude will slowly fade from 5 in late July to 6 in early September.

  3. One thing that always strikes me about aurora photos is how static they look compared to the real thing. The last time I saw them was about 10 years ago. I was at my brother’s house and they were all having problems with their cell phones. I left for home after midnight, looked up in the sky like I always do, and saw the reason for the cell phone problems. First time I ever saw white aurora, very cool. If we get them again I’d like to try taking a photo. I have a new camera that takes longer exposure night images (designed for static scenes and a tripod).

    • Hi Troy,
      That’s a good setup. You should have no problem. 15-30 second exposure times work well. Nothing can quite capture the motion and energy of an aurora though there are now some pretty nice time lapse videos made from stills out there.

  4. Hey Bob, I first saw aurora in Alaska and just wanted to point out that, although they may be present nearly every night, they can’t be seen during the summer when it never gets truly dark. Their motion is astonishing, rapid and sky-wide but I was also surprised by how bright northern lights can be. I was expecting something subtle like the Milky Way. No-no. Bright enough to blot out the stars behind. My best pal was visiting Denali, tent camping at Wonder Lake, and wakened by the “sound” of them to see her first display. Any experience with that? Also, what’s this about a “new” supernova? Later.

    Norman

    • Norman,
      Hah – good point! No, no aurora in the summertime at polar latitudes. The aurora can become very bright. I might go out to the country to observe, but if a big display starts up, I don’t bother to use the scope – the lights are too bright and I wouldn’t miss a good show. I’ve seem the aurora at least a couple hundred times but never heard sound. However you can “listen” to it using a ELF device. Here’s a piece I wrote about listening to the aurora and how to get a receiver: http://www.universetoday.com/102234/put-the-aurora-borealis-in-your-ear/

      There’s a 13.6 mag. supernova in a surprisingly faint and small galaxy – called 2014ad in PGC 37625. The once-bright supernova 2014J in M82 has faded to around 13.4.

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