Waterfalls of Light – The Aurora


Once again, the skies over Churchill, Manitoba delivered a wonderful show of Northern Lights during the 2018 aurora season.

As I do each year, in February I visited the Churchill Northern Studies Centre on the frozen shore of Hudson Bay in Manitoba, Canada to help present aurora watching sessions to tourists from around the world.

I shot these images and the time-lapses for the music video during my two-week stay February 7 to 18.


The music video incorporates sequences shot on three nights: February 15, 16, and 18. Visit the video’s Vimeo page where the description below the video contains all the details and tech information. I won’t repeat that all here.

It is viewable in up to 6K resolution, almost IMAX™ grade!

The music is by the British composer and musician Alexis Ffrench, and is used by kind permission. Visit his website to hear and learn more.

This year, finding clear skies was not a problem. We had clouds on only 2 nights of the 11 I stayed in Churchill. However, temperatures were typically -35° C with a brisk wind at times. There were extreme cold warnings out which, for Churchill, means EXTREME COLD! But that gave us very clear skies.

Often, tour participants are just as excited about seeing the stars and Milky Way as they are about checking the Lights off their lifetime bucket list.

The other challenge was on a couple of nights there was no significant aurora which, for Churchill under the auroral oval, was unusual. On other nights the Lights didn’t appear until about 3 a.m.

But on some nights the aurora danced as expected in the evening or midnight sky, covering the sky in a jaw-dropping display, and sometimes with vivid pinks fringing the curtains.

Here are some of my favourite still images from my 2018 stay.

First, a panorama selfie!

Auroral Oval in Twilight Panorama
A 180° panorama of the auroral oval across the northern horizon in the twilight sky on February 18, 2018. The aurora was active right at the start of the evening this night, the final night of my stay in Churchill for 2018, here at the Northern Studies Centre. The panorama is from the upper floor deck. The aurora appeared so early we had not had a chance yet to turn off the building lights – programs were still happening inside. The temperature was -35° C. Up from low of -40 earlier in the day. The wind had also died down, mercifully! Orion is rising at right. This is a 9-segment panorama stitched with Adobe Camera Raw. The lens is the 14mm Sigma Art lens wide open at f/1.8 and Nikon D750 at ISO 3200. Exposures were 4 seconds each. For the last one, with the self-timer I got into the last frame for a selfie.

 

All-Sky Aurora with Pink Curtains #2
A fish-eye lens view of an all-sky aurora on February 16, 2018, over the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, in Churchill, Manitoba, and caught during a short-lived bright outburst when the bottom fringe of the auroral curtains turned brilliant pink for a minute or so, due to energetic electrons exciting lower altitude nitrogen molecules. This was with the 8mm Sigma fish-eye lens at f/3.5 and the Canon 6D MkII at ISO 3200. The sky is one exposure while the ground is a mean combined stack of 4 exposures to smooth noise. The exposures were part of a 925-frame time-lapse.

 

Selfie with Aurora at Churchill Northern Studies Centre (Feb 11,
A reasonably bright display of Northern Lights appears and performs for the first aurora group of the season at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, Churchill, Manitoba, on the night of February 11/12, 2018. The Kp Index was still low, only 0 to 1, and the Bz was often still North, but for some reason we got a decent display this night. Here, I pose for my own selfie, gazing at the Lights. This is a single shot with the Rokinon 12mm lens and Nikon D750.

 

Feathered-Edge All-Sky Aurora #4
An all-sky aurora display in the early morning hours (between 3 and 4 am) on February 10, 2018, shot from the upper deck of the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, Churchill, Manitoba. The main arc had an ususual feathered lower edge with protruding patches. Visually, the aurora was dim and colourless. Kp Index was 1. This is looking east with Jupiter rising at centre. This is a single exposure with the 12mm Rokinon full-frame fish-eye lens on the Nikon D750.

 

Dipper and Polaris in Aurora
The Big and Little Dippers, and Polaris over the boreal forest amid subtly coloured aurora at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. Taken on Feb 11, 2018 on a night with a decent display of Northern Lights. Arcturus is at right. Cassiopeia is at left.

 

Orion and Auroral Swirl over CNSC
Orion and the winter sky, at left, and a swirl of colourful aurora over the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, in a display on February 11, 2018. People from the first Learning Vacations group of the season are shooting the Lights. This is a single image with the 12mm Rokinon full-frame fish-eye lens and Nikon D750.

 

Auroral Curtains in Twilight (Feb 18, 2018) #2
Curtains of aurora during an active storm on February 18, 2018 from the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, in the early evening in the last of the twilight. This night the aurora was brightest early in the evening. The Big Dipper is at left. This is a single frame from a 725-frame time-lapse with the Nikon D750 at ISO 3200 and Sigma 14mm Art lens at f/1.8. Exposures were 2 seconds.

 

Snaking Auroral Serpent
An auroral curtain with dramatic snaking curls and twists like a serpent, as auroras were sometimes seen and depicted in medieval times. This is a frame from a time-lapse sequence taken February 16, 2018 from the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, Churchill, Manitoba, using the 14mm Sigma Art lens at f/1.8 and Nikon D750.

 

Kp0 Aurora from Churchill
A Kp 0 (lowest level reading of the 0 to 9 Kp Index) aurora at 3:30 am on February 11, 2018, from the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, in Churchill, Manitoba. Earlier in the night there was no aurora visible at all, but by 3:30 there was a faint arc and patches, but very dim. The Bz Index had turned south, so the aurora picked up a little, but very litttle! The colours and contrast have been enhanced here. This is an example of the lowest level aurora from a site under the auroral zone. This is a stitch of 4 segments to make a small vertical panorama to take in the horizon and the Big Dipper at the zenith at top. Gemini and Auriga are at left; the star Vega is right of centre. Polaris is above centre. We are looking nearly due north. All frames with the 12mm Rokinon full-frame fish-eye lens, for 25 seconds at f/2.8 and ISO 3200. Stitched with PTGui.

Thanks for looking!

— Alan, February 25, 2018 / © 2018 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com 

 

The Sky Was Dancing


Aurora Panorama from Northern Studies Centre #2 (January 29, 201

The Northern Lights once again performed beautifully from Churchill, Manitoba, making the sky dance with colours. 

As I do each winter, I spent time in Churchill, Manitoba at the wonderful Churchill Northern Studies Centre, attending to groups of “aurora tourists” there to check an item off their bucket list – seeing the Northern Lights.

Auroral Arcs over Boreal Forest #2

In the 30 years the courses have been presented only one group has ever come away not seeing the Lights. Well, make that two now. A bout of unseasonably warm weather in my first week brought clouds every night. Mild temperatures to be sure. But we want it to be -25° C! That’s when it is clear.

Winter Star and Milky Way from Churchill Manitoba

Our first clear night was very clear, affording us a wonderful view of the winter Milky Way before the Lights came out. Such a view is unusual from the North, as the Lights usually wash out the sky, which they did later this night. Even here, you can see some wisps of green aurora.

Orion over Snow Inukshuk

Normal temperatures didn’t return until week 2 of my stay. The second group fared much better, getting good displays on 4 of their 5 nights there, more typical of Churchill.

Photographers Under the Northern Lights

A few determined die-hards from Group 1 (here shooting the Lights) stayed on a couple of more nights, and were rewarded with the views they had come for. They were happy!

All-Sky Aurora from Churchill #2 (January 29, 2017)

In the images here, at no time did the auroral activity exceed a level of Kp 3 (on a scale of 0 to 9) and was often just Kp 1 or 2. Farther south no one would see anything. But at latitude 58° N Churchill lies under the auroral oval where even on quiet nights the aurora is active and often spectacular.

Aurora Panorama from Northern Studies Centre #3 (January 29, 201

In speaking to a Dene elder who presents a cultural talk to each of the CNSC groups, Caroline said that to the Dene of northern Canada their word for the Lights translates to “the sky is dancing.” Wonderful! It did for us.

The Auroras of Churchill from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.

This music video presents a montage of time-lapse movies I shot over four nights, from January 25 to 29, 2017. They provide an idea of what we saw under the dancing sky.

As usual, choose HD and enlarge to full screen to view the movie. Or go to Vimeo with the V button.

— Alan, February 3, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer/AmazingSky.com 

 

Scenes from Under the Auroral Oval


Classic Curtains of the Auroral Oval

From Churchill, Manitoba the Northern Lights dance almost every night over the boreal forest.

This year, as in the last two years, I have traveled to the shores of a frozen Hudson Bay and to the town of Churchill, Manitoba to view and photograph the aurora borealis.

I’m instructing two tour groups at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, one this week and one last week, in the science and sagas of the aurora and on how to shoot the Lights. The participants in the groups are fabulous, keenly interested and unfazed by the cold and wind.

From Churchill’s latitude of 58° N, we are under the main auroral oval almost every night. Even on nights with low official activity levels, as they were on all the nights I shot these images, we still get sky-filling displays.

Here’s a selection of still images from the last week of shooting, with clear skies on all but a couple of nights. There’s still room in our March sessions!

Circumpolar Star Trails and Aurora (Feb 9, 2016)
Circumpolar star trails and aurora over the boreal forest at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, Churchill, Manitoba, on Feb 9, 2016. This is a stack of 250 frames shot over one hour (until the battery died) for a time-lapse but here stacked for a single image star trail using the Advanced Stacker Plus actions and Long Streaks effect. Each exposure was 15 seconds at f/2.8 with the 15mm lens and Canon 6D at ISO 6400.
All-Sky Aurora from Churchill (Feb 5, 2016)
An all-sky aurora display of multiple curtains of aurora borealis over the boreal forest at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, in Churchill, Manitoba, taken on Feb 5, 2016. The view is looking almost due north. Jupiter is at right. The Big Dipper is at centre frame. This is one frame from a 380-frame time-lapse sequence shot for digital dome projection in planetariums. This is a 20-second exposure at f/5 (stopped down by accident — should have been f/3.5) with the 8mm Sigma fish-eye lens and Canon 6D at ISO 3200. Temperature was -35° C. But no wind!
Observing the Aurora on Deck at CNSC
Participants in the Arctic Skies tour and course observe and photograph the Northern Lights from the upper level observing deck at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, Churchill, Manitoba on Feb 10, 2016, the first night of their tour. A Level 1 to 2 display provided a good first night show though with bitterly cold temperatures and wind chills of near -50° C. This is a single exposure of 8 seconds at f/1.4 with the 20mm Sigma Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 3200.
Aurora over Churchill Northern Studies Centre #1 (Feb 8, 2016)
The Northern Lights over the Churchill Northern Studies Centre on Feb 8/9, 2016 during a weak all-sky display. The arcs lay primarily in the south when the display was at its best this night. Orion and the Pleiades are just setting in the west over the town of Churchill. This is a 20 second exposure at f/2.8 with the 15mm full-frame fish-eye lens and Canon 6D at ISO 3200.
Northern Lights Panorama #2 from CNSC Deck
A panorama across the northern horizon of the sweeping curtains of the aurora, taken from the observation deck of the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, Manitoba. I shot this on Feb 10, 2016 on the first night of the Arctic Skies tour group week. Vega is low in the north at left of centre, Arcturus is the bright star at right of centre. This is a 4-segment panorama, stitched with Adobe Camera Raw, with each segment 5 seconds at f/1.4 with the 20mm Sigma lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 3200.
Aurora with Leo and Jupiter Rising (Feb 5, 2016)
Curtains of the aurora looking northeast and east toward Leo rising (at upper right) and Jupiter (at right), over the boreal forest of the Hudson Bay Lowlands near Churchill, Manitoba, on Feb 5, 2016. This is a single frame from a 680-frame time-lapse. This is a 4-second exposure at f/1.4 with the Sigma 20mm Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 3200.
Vertical Curtains of Aurora over the Boreal Forest
Vertical curtains of aurora converging to the zenith overhead over the snowy boreal forest at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, Churchill, Manitoba. I shot this Feb 4, 2016 on a night with temperatures of -35° C with a slight wind. The Big Dpper is at right. Exposure was 10 seconds at f/2.8 with the 15mm lens anf Canon 6D at ISO 3200.
Gazing at the Aurora from Churchill
A lone figure gazes skyward at the aurora over the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, Churchill, Manitoba. I shot this Feb 4, 2016 on a night with temperatures of -35° C with a slight wind. Exposure was 13 seconds at f/2.8 with the 15mm lens anf Canon 6D at ISO 3200.
Aurora, Big Dipper and Polaris
A wide vertical portrait of the Northern Lights in the northern sky, with the stars of the Big Dipper and Polaris above centre. Shot from the upper deck of the Churchill Northern Studies Centre on a very windy night with wind chills of -50°, so standing in the wind to take this image was bitter! You grab a few images and retreat! This is a single 15-second exposure at f/2.8 with the 15mm lens and Canon 6D at ISO 3200.
Arctic Skies Group Under the Aurora
The February Arctic Skies tour group watching and photographing the aurora from the second floor deck of the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, where it is out of the wind, which this night was producing -50° C wind chills. This is a single 6-second exposure at f/2.8 with the 15mm lens and Canon 6D at ISO 6400.
Watching the Aurora in the Winter Stars
A self-portrait of me watching the Northern Lights from the upper deck of the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, looking south to the winter stars of Orion, Gemini and Auriga. This was Feb 11, 2016, a very windy, almost blizzard night with blowing snow and reduced visibility. However the aurora did appear through the haze and clouds. In the distance are the buildings of the old Churchill Rocket Range. This is a single 15-second exposure at f/2.8 with the 15mm lens and Canon 6D at ISO 3200.

— Alan, February 12, 2016 / www.amazingsky.com 

 

The Blizzard Aurora


Aurora over the Old Rocket Range

Beautiful curtains of light draped across the sky despite the blizzard blowing below.

Last night, February 16, was the last night for aurora viewing for the first aurora tour group hosted by the Churchill Northern Studies Centre.

Despite predictions calling for an active display, we had given up hope of seeing anything, as a blizzard had been raging all day and into the evening. But about 10 pm I knocked on doors down the hall — get up! The Lights are out!

Against all odds, skies cleared enough to reveal a wonderful all-sky display of Northern Lights, with multiple curtains of light snaking over the sky.

The view above overlooks the now derelict launch buildings of the abandoned Churchill Rocket Range, in use from the late 1950s until the 1980s. Some 3500 rockets were fired from here in its heyday, shot into the active auroras that occur here almost nightly under the auroral oval.

Auroral Curtains in Green & Magenta #2

This view overlooks the boreal forest on the frozen shore of Hudson Bay, and shows the multiple curtains that twisted and turned across the sky.

Tonight’s display was marked by fringes of magenta, rather than the deeper reds we observed 2 nights ago.

Aurora in Orion & Overhead

Winds were howling and snow was blowing, but from the shelter of the Centre’s second floor observing deck we could view the display in windless comfort, despite the -30° C temperatures.

Aurora from the Viewing Deck

The group was delighted at having this bonus viewing night. Now the concern is whether the blizzard will abate enough to allow flights in and out of Churchill Airport. The group might get another night under the Lights!

– Alan, February 17, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Standing Under the Auroral Oval (2015)


Standing Under the Auroral Oval

The Northern Lights dance overhead each night from Churchill, Manitoba.

If you really want to see the Northern Lights, don’t wait for them to come to you. Instead, you go to them.

For the second year in a row I’ve been able to participate as an instructor during week-long aurora courses and tours at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre on the shore of Hudson Bay. The site is at 58° latitude, far enough north to place us directly under the main auroral oval, the prime location for viewing the Northern Lights.

If it’s clear, a view of dancing arcs and curtains of aurora is almost guaranteed. Two nights ago we had a marvellous display, despite official indicators of aurora strength and geomagnetic activity all reading low or even zero.

Still, the Lights came out and danced across the sky.

The top photo is selfie of me standing the display in a 360° all-sky image shot for use in a planetarium. The research centre building is at left. The view is generally looking north.

Watching the Northern Lights

This view is from the second floor deck of the centre, usually a bit more sheltered from the wind. It allows a good view to the north and east, where displays typically start, as they did this night. Feb. 13.

Auroral Curtain over the Boreal Forest

As the display developed the curtain rose up into the sky to arc from east to west across heavens.

All-Sky Auroral Curtains (Feb 13, 2015)

This image, also a 360° fish-eye image taken with an 8mm lens, shows the display at its best, with rippling curtains hanging overhead. It’s part of a time-lapse sequence.

Red Auroral Curtains

The next night, February 14, was marked by fainter but an unusually red aurora, appropriate for Valentine’s Day perhaps. Or the 50th anniversary of our red and white Canadian flag.

The sky was a little hazier, but the aurora shone through, initially only with a red and orange tint, colours we could just see with the unaided eye – the long exposures of the camera really bring out the colours the eye can only just perceive when the aurora is dim.

The green curtains, seen here in the distance, did arrive a few minutes later, lighting up the curtains in the more usual green colour, with just upper fringes of red.

It seems the red is from low-energy electrons exciting oxygen only in the upper atmosphere. Only later did the more energetic electrons arrive to excite the green oxygen transition that occurs at lower altitudes.

With luck, I’ll have more nights to stand under the auroral oval and look up in wonder at the Northern Lights.

– Alan, February 15 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com