Non-Stop Northern Lights


Aurora over the Boreal Forest (Feb 8, 2019)

For 11 non-stop nights in February we had clear skies and Northern Lights in Churchill.

Every year in winter I visit Churchill, Manitoba to attend to groups of aurora tourists at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. Few groups (indeed only two over the 35 years the program has been offered) go away having not seen the Lights during the 5-night program.

Aurora Group at Churchill Northern Studies Centre (Jan 31, 2019)
Guests in the Learning Vacations program at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre view the aurora on their first night of the program for 2019 on January 31. This is looking east, with the Big Dipper at left and Orion at right.

But this year was the opposite exception. Even locals were impressed by the run of clear nights and displays in early February. It was non-stop Northern Lights!

Photographer Shooting the Northern Lights #2 (Feb 8, 2019)
A photographer and volunteer at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre (Brian) shoots the aurora from up the Rocket Range Road at the Centre. This was Feb 8, 2019 on a brutal night with brisk winds and high wind chills. This is a single exposure with the 15mm lens and Sony a7III.

Having auroras in Churchill isn’t unusual. It is located right under the auroral oval, so if it’s clear it would be unusual not to have some level of auroral activity.

Auroral Arcs, Loops and Swirls (Feb 5, 2019) #5 of 5
One of a short series of images showing the development of an aurora display from a classic arc into a more complex pattern of concentric arcs and with loops and swirls. This was Feb 5, 2019 from the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. The outburst lasted only 5 minutes or so and might have been due to the Bz interplanetary field turning south briefly. After this series, the display faded and fractured into faint arcs and a diffuse glow across the sky. This is a single exposure with the 12mm Rokinon full-frame fish-eye and Nikon D750.

But particles from a coronal hole at the Sun fired up the lights and gave us good shows every night, often starting early in evening, rather than at midnight as is typically the case. The shows pre-empted my evening lectures!

Auroral Arc over Northern Studies Centre (Feb 8, 2019)
A classic arc of aurora over the Northern Studies Centre near Churchill, Manitoba, on Feb 8, 2019. This was a night when both our Road Scholar group and a visiting Natural Habitat group was here. This is a single exposure with the 15mm lens and Sony a7III.

With shows every night, people soon got pretty fussy about what they’d get excited about. Some nights people viewed displays just from their bedroom windows!

Aurora Thru the Dorm Room Window
A view of the weak (by Churchill standards) aurora display on Feb 3, 2019 as seen through my dormitory window at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, to demonstrate how you can see the Lights from your room looking north.

Displays that on night one they would be thrilled with, by night four they were going back to bed awaiting a call later when “it gets really good!”

Aurora over Snowy Trees (Feb 9, 2019)
A band of subtly coloured aurora over the snowy trees of the northern boreal forest, Churchill, Manitoba. This was Feb 9/10, 2019. Cassiopeia is at left. This is looking north. This is a single 6-second exposure with the Venus Optics 15mm lens at f/2 and Sony A7III at ISO 3200.

While auroras were active every night, the Lights showed little in the way of varied colours. Notably absent was any of the deep red from high altitude oxygen. The aurora particles were just not energetic enough I presume, a characteristic of solar minimum displays.

Auroral Arc over CNSC - Feb 2, 2019
An all-sky aurora over the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, captured with a fish-eye lens, Feb 2, 2019. This is looking northwest. This is a single 8-second exposure with the Sigma 8mm lens at f/3.5 and Sony a7III at ISO 3200.

Increasingly, as we enter into the depths of solar minimum, with a prolonged lull expected for the next few years, aurora chasers will have to travel north to the Arctic and to the auroral oval to see displays on demand. The Lights won’t come to us!

Coloured Curtains over CNSC (Feb 9, 2019)
A display of subtly coloured curtains over the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, on February 9, 2019. The curtains exhibited rapid rippling this night. This is 6 seconds at f/2 with the 15mm Venus Optic lens and Sony a7III at ISO 3200.

We did see fringes of pink at times along the bottom of the auroral curtains from glowing nitrogen molecules, but even this was subtle to the eye, though obvious to the camera.

The nitrogen pinks are usually accompanied by rapid dancing motions that are amazing to watch.

The music video linked to below provides the best view of what we saw. It is made entirely of real-time video, not time-lapses, of the Lights as seen over several nights from the Studies Centre.

The video is in 4K, so do click through for the best viewing. And the Vimeo page provides more details about the video and the techniques.

Enjoy!

The Sky is Dancing from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.

If you are interested in attending one of the CNSC’s sessions — where you eat, sleep, learn, and view the Lights from a well-appointed and comfortable research centre at a dark site, check out the Study Centre’s “Learning Vacations” offerings.

The next sessions for the aurora are a year from now in February and March 2020.  I’ll be there!

— Alan, February 21, 2019 / © 2019 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com 

 

Dance of the Northern Lights



My new 3-minute music video compiles still and time-lapse imagery of the aurora I shot in February 2015 from Churchill, Manitoba.

Churchill’s location at 58° North on the shore of Hudson Bay puts it directly under the main auroral oval, the zone of greatest auroral activity. Over the 9 nights, 2 were cloudy, with a roaring blizzard.

But on the 8 clear nights we saw aurora every night. I shot time-lapses on 6 of those nights, shooting about 3,500 frames, most of which appear in the final cut of this movie.

Despite the amazing displays we saw, on no night was the auroral activity index (on a scale of 0 to 9) higher than 2 or 3. These were all “normal” quiet nights for auroras in Churchill. Anyone farther south would have seen little in their sky on most of these nights.

I shot many of the time-lapses with an 8mm spherical fish-eye lens, to create sequences suitable for projection in digital planetarium domes. One other time-lapse sequence (the last in this movie) I shot with a 15mm full-frame fish-eye. Even it is not wide enough to take in the entire display when the Lights fill the sky.

Exposures were typically 10 to 15 seconds at f/3.5 and ISO 1600 to 4000, all with the Canon 6D. I powered it from its lone internal battery. Amazingly, despite temperatures that were considered extreme even for Churchill (often -32° C at night) the batteries lasted 90 to 150 minutes allowing me to take lots of frames with no battery change or perhaps just one battery change. Churchill is very dry and only on one night did I have an issue with the lens frosting up.

Music is by Dan Phillipson, his composition “Into the Unknown,” purchased for royalty-free use through Triple Scoop Music. I edited the movie in Apple Aperture, with a title sequence created in Photoshop. Processing of the original images was with Adobe Camera Raw, Photoshop, and LRTimelapse, with assembly of movie frames done with Sequence for MacOS.

I hope you enjoy it! Do click on the Enlarge button to watch it full screen. It may take a while to start playing.

— Alan, March 6, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Green Waves of Northern Lights


Ultrawide Aurora #4 - Feb 21, 2015

Last night the sky exploded with waves of green and pink as the Northern Lights danced in the bitter cold.

With blizzard conditions forecast for the next two days, last night might have been our last for viewing the aurora from Churchill. But if so, we ended on a high note.

Ultrawide Aurora #1 - Feb 21, 2015

The aurora appeared on schedule again at about 9 to 9:30 p.m., following my evening lecture, as it has done every clear night for the last couple of weeks. It began as a sweeping arc to the north, as above, then moved south to encompass the entire sky.

Ultrawide Aurora #5 - Feb 21, 2015

About 11 p.m. the sky burst open with waves of green arcs, but with generous tints of red and magenta that the camera picks up easily. To the eye, the reds are barely visible unless the aurora gets very bright.

Shooting the Northern Lights (Feb 21, 2015)

Despite the bitterly cold temperatures of -34° C with a -50° wind chill, everyone in the tour group braved the night to take in the sight. And many managed to work their cameras and tripods, no small feat under such conditions, to get great shots.

The groups this week and last saw aurora every clear night, with clear nights on at least 3 out of the 5 nights of each course. Not a bad take, fulfilling everyone’s “bucket list” dream of standing under the aurora borealis.

– Alan, February 22, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

A Cold Night of Auroral Lights


Pink Aurora over Boreal Forest #1 (Feb 20, 2015)

It was a bitterly cold night for watching the dancing Northern Lights.

When Environment Canada issues Extreme Cold warnings for Churchill, you know its cold! With temperatures at -32° C and with high winds last night, the wind chill equivalent was -50° C.

But that didn’t stop us from watching the Lights!

Aurora from Churchill #4 (Feb 20, 2015)

I nicely finished my evening lecture at 9 pm when the Lights appeared on cue. They were faint at first, but then brightened nicely by 10 pm. The show was over by midnight, a well-timed and convenient display.

Aurora from Churchill #3 (Feb 20, 2015)

The 22 participants in this week’s course all bundled up and headed out, onto the second floor viewing deck and out onto the ground for views and photos of the aurora.

Aurora from Churchill #1 (Feb 20, 2015)

This was not a brilliant display – the official activity level was still reading only 1 or 2 on scale of 0 to 9. But it provided us with some beautiful curtains and lovely colours. The hazy appearance is from high clouds and local blowing snow.

Aurora from Churchill #5 (Feb 20, 2015)

The views from the Deck overlooking the boreal forest make for some nice photo opportunities, from a spot largely out of the constant westerly winds.

We have three more nights here, though snow is forecast for the last two. Tonight may be our last night to enjoy the Northern Lights. But all are happy with what they have seen and shot so far.

– Alan, February 21, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Awestruck Under the Aurora


Aurora - Feb 3-4, 2014 (Fisheye #2)

The sky simply does not get any more amazing than this, as the Northern Lights dance across the heavens.

On the last night for our first aurora tour group of the season, the sky performed perfectly. Clouds cleared to reveal a star-filled winter sky, and after the evening talks and farewell drinks, the aurora began to appear. First it was a bright arc across the north, prompting me to try some self-portraits, as below.

Aurora - Feb 3-4, 2014 (Self Portrait)

But at about 2 a.m. a diffuse arc across the zenith exploded into activity, with rapidly waving and weaving curtains.

Aurora - Feb 3-4, 2014 (Fisheye #1)

Everyone was awestruck. Some cheered and hollered. Others just watched in stunned silence. Some were busy with cameras. Others just enjoyed the view of a lifetime.

Aurora - Feb 3-4, 2014 (Fisheye #3)

It was a cold night, but the aurora kept performing in waves, dimming for a time – allowing us to retreat to the warm cafeteria for hot chocolate. Then the display would brighten again to the west and a new wave of intensity would sweep across the sky to the east. 

Aurora - Feb 3-4, 2014 (Orion & Silhouette)

You didn’t know quite where to look to take it all in. The sight was overwhelming. Here the curtains ripple through Orion, Taurus and Auriga, all setting into the west.

Aurora - Feb 3-4, 2014 (Thru the Dome)

The Churchill Northern Studies Centre has a new building opened in 2011 that is ideally set up for aurora watching. The building can go dark, and is located far enough from Churchill that local light pollution is not an issue. On the roof is a plexiglas dome where several people can view the Northern Lights and the entire sky in shirtsleeve comfort. The image is good enough for wide-angle photography. Sheer luxury!

Aurora - Feb 3-4, 2014 (Zenith Curtains)

But there’s nothing like being outside on a cold Arctic night, looking up and seeing this sight – thin curtains of light twisting and turning more quickly than you can take in and comprehend. It is one of nature’s greatest shows. And what a fantastic place to see it.

– Alan, February 4, 2014  / © 2014 Alan Dyer