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

The Colourful Curtains of the Northern Lights


All-Sky Aurora #1 (Feb 17, 2015)

The Northern Lights have performed beautifully the last few nights, presenting curtains of light dancing across the sky.

Two nights ago in Churchill, Manitoba we were treated to a “storm level” show of aurora, with the Lights all across the sky in green curtains waving and curling before our eyes.

The curtains tower several hundred kilometres up into the atmosphere, from the lower edge at about 80 km up (still high above the stratosphere) to the curtain tops at about 400 km altitude at the edge of space.

The camera picks up the colours far better than the eye can, recording not only the predominant green hues but also shades of pink, magenta and red.

All-Sky Aurora #5 (Feb 17, 2015)

The magentas and reds come from the sections of the curtains at the highest altitudes, from the top of the auroral curtains. Here, where the atmosphere is a near vacuum, sparse oxygen atoms can glow with a red emission line.

However, there must be a blue component as well, leading to the magenta or pink tones, as in my photos here. Nitrogen can glow in blues and purples and might be contributing to the colours.

The top two photos are from Tuesday night, Feb 17, when storm levels of 5 were in effect worldwide.

All-Sky Auroral Curtains #2 (Feb 18, 2015)

Lower down, at about 100 km altitude, the air is denser and oxygen glows with a brighter green hue, which the eye can detect more easily.

The photo above from last night, with an activity level of just 2, also shows most of the sky covered with a faint emission, with a patchy appearance, with dark “holes” also moving and flowing in the time-lapse movies I shot.

Closer to the horizon, and far to the north, the aurora brightens into the more characteristic green snaking curtains.

Red Auroral Curtains

This image from three nights ago shows an usually coloured aurora at the start of the night, glowing mostly a deeper red and orange.

The green was still off in the distance far to the east. It arrived a few minutes later as green curtains swept in over us.

But the initial red was from low-energy electrons lighting up just high-altitude oxygen. Only when the higher energy particles arrived did the sky light up green.

All-Sky Aurora #7 (Feb 17, 2015)

I shot all these images with an 8mm fish-eye lens as frames in time-lapse sequences intended for use projected in digital planetarium domes, where the 360° “all-sky” scene would be recreated on the dome as it was in real life.

If you are with a planetarium, contact me if you’d like to get aurora clips.

Our second group of aurora tourists has arrived today at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, and the weather is warming to a high of -20° C. Balmy!

We’re hoping for more fine displays, though the space weather forecast calls for a quiet magnetic field in the next few days.

– Alan, February 19, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / 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

Waves of Northern Lights in Time-Lapse


Aurora - Feb 7, 2014 (Fisheye #3)

Watch waves of aurora wash over the sky rising out of the west to swirl overhead.

This was the spectacle we saw Friday night at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, as the northern lights filled our sky. I set up my camera on the east side of the main building, out of the bitterly cold west wind. The fish-eye lens is aimed west but its view takes in most of the sky.

The bright object at lower left is the Moon.

The still image above is a frame from the 349-frame time-lapse movie below.

Each frame is a 7-second exposure at f/3.5 and ISO 1250. The interval is 1 second.

The movie covers about 45 minutes of time, compressed into 30 seconds. It shows the aurora peaking in intensity, then fading out behind the ever-present thin cloud drifting through all night.

What amazes me are the waves and loops of auroral curtains that come at us from the west (bottom behind the building) then swirl around the zenith overhead. They move off to the east and north at the top of the frame.

Even watching this in real-time the scene was astonishing. The curtains rippled so quickly, forming and reforming over the sky, you didn’t know where to look. As the image above shows, people just stood amazed.

— Alan, February 9, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

P.S.: You can view a better-grade version of the movie at my Flickr site.

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

 

 

Underneath the Northern Lights


Churchill Aurora Feb 1-2, 2014 #1

Our tour group to see the Northern Lights finally saw what they traveled north to experience – the aurora borealis dancing across the sky.

This week and next I’m helping to lead some tour groups who have come to Churchill, Manitoba to see the aurora. We’ve been here 3 nights so far but last night was the first with clearing skies and when the Northern Lights appeared above us.

Our home base is the beautiful Churchill Northern Studies Centre, far enough from the main townsite to give us dark skies. Being able to sleep, eat and take in lectures (or for me, give lectures) right where we can see the aurora is a tremendous luxury and convenience. The Centre is perfectly set up for aurora viewing, with a rooftop dome, and the ability to “go dark” with all lights off. 

Here in Churchill, on the shores of Hudson Bay, we are at a latitude of 58° north. But critically, we are right under the usual position of the auroral oval, the main band of Northern Lights that circles the world at high latitudes. 

Churchill Aurora Feb 1-2, 2014 #3

As such, even though last night the various aurora and magnetic field indicators were registering a quiet display with little disturbance in the field, we still saw a beautiful display. It wasn’t very active but did display curtains and rays shooting up to the zenith.

Churchill Aurora Feb 1-2, 2014 #4

As seen here, for much of the time the main band of aurora was actually in the south. That’s Jupiter glowing through the aurora and thin clouds at upper right.

We’ve been fighting clouds all week but last night skies cleared for long enough and it seemed at just the right time to coincide with the brightest outburst of this display. After I took these images, the aurora died down to a more diffuse glow then the clouds thickened in again. By then it was 3 am and we all retired to our rooms. 

– Alan, February 2, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer