Post 3: Awed by the Arctic Lights – Humbled by the Cold and a Car Crash. An Amazing Night!

_MG_5599Last night Will and I smashed our personal records for experiencing cold, down another 10 degrees to 35 below zero (–35F/ –37C).  My  life dream of beholding the aurora dancing in the sky above me was outrageously fulfilled.  There were moments no one photograph could capture, with the sky overhead (and in three directions nearer to the horizons) filled with rippling, waving, and spiraling lights…like God’s screensaver.  We were bathed in the ghostly, greenish glow, which was also subtly reflected by the snow.   Woman with red hood, black mask, and head lamp. With frosted eyes. Even the locals found this night of northern lights especially remarkable.

Such gratitude I feel for the pure, unadulterated awe I experienced…crying and laughing at the same time…stumbling in the uneven snow and ice to keep my feet as I gazed up and around me….twirling with dizzying delight till I fell back onto the frozen ground,  surrendering to the overwhelming nature of the experience. My tears formed a sticky frost on my eyelashes. Click on the image of me in my red hood for a closer look.  What a glorious night!

Only slightly less astonishing was the concurrent discipline and perseverance of my teammates Duke and Will, who manned and maneuvered their tripod-mounted cameras in harsh and distracting conditions with a focused devotion to duty I can only imagine might be paralleled by men in battle.

While the lights danced all over the sky, my teammates bravely committed their cameras to a particular scene, and worked myriad tiny buttons and levers to optimize focus, field of view, and exposure time for the best shot in rapidly changing conditions.  They had to know their instruments intimately because all of this was happening with the dulled dexterity of their gloves, the limited light of their headlamps, and my empassioned appeals to behold extraordinary auroral swirls forming in yet another direction.

The equipment would occasionally slow or even fail in the cold, and at one point Duke had to rig a manual “bulb” exposure mechanism to replace a failed auto shuttering cable. To keep the cameras functioning, we had to take breaks to warm them in our little blue car. We’d take advantage of those times to migrate to another site for photography.  At our last site, just before dawn, one of the electronic cables became so brittle that it snapped like a twig, and today Duke borrowed a soldering iron from a trusting local merchant to attempt repair.  Hmmm… refreshing change of perspective here in northern Canada. We like it!

man with legs spread before camera on tripod photographing large green swirl of aurora in the arctic sky

What Causes Aurora?

Aurora are ghostly, colorful, and dynamic patterns of light emanating from atoms and molecules in Earth’s upper atmosphere that have been excited by collisions with charged particles coming from the Sun.  The charged particles are part of an ongoing million mile per hour stream called the solar wind, but it is not at all like wind on Earth. The colors we see or detect with our cameras depend on the type of atom that is giving off the light, generally some form of oxygen or nitrogen which are the most abundant elements in our atmosphere. The variety of shapes are controlled by disturbances in Earth’s magnetic field, along which the charged particles move. The aurora occur in the polar regions of Earth 24/7, but can only be observed when skies are clear and dark. The lights are especially active and dynamic when the Sun is magnetically active, and we are currently in a time period when solar activity is rising toward a so-called solar maximum.

A Gallery of Selected Images from Last Night

The team recorded over 500  images last night (6-7 March 2013).  Below is a photo gallery of some of the best shots.  They are the fruits of the dedication of my intrepid teammates who sacrificed a more soulful experience of the lights for the cause of recording these dramatic images for our educational mission.

This project’s primary mission is to share this experience of the Northern Lights with younger people and others who remain touch with their child-like sense of wonder about our universe. In keeping with that purpose, the team sends special greetings to the ASTRONOMY CLASS at NORCROSS HIGH SCHOOL where Will currently teaches physics!  We understand they will be tuning into our blog tomorrow.  WE LOOK FORWARD TO YOUR QUESTIONS!  Tomorrow,  I (Cherilynn) will be sending information out to physics students from several semesters of teaching at Georgia State University in Atlanta.  Duke is feeding information everyday back to his workplace at Clark Planetarium in Salt Lake City.

As you view the images below, remember that the camera integrates light for several seconds, and the human eye for only about 1/30th of a second. Thus the brightness and colors you see in the images are not exactly what the human eye perceives in real time.  Even so, the photographs are compelling works of art that we hope will stir your soul!  Perhaps they will inspire you to want to see the amazing arctic lights for yourself one day.  Let the frosty eyelashes from my tears of joy help to assure you that it’s well worth the journey.


PS.  At 4:30 am, on our way back in this morning, we accidentally spun out on the ice with our little blue car and smashed it into a snow bank. Yes, we smashed more than personal temperature records (ahem). The cold, brittle plastic of the front bumper was shattered like glass, and we were stuck and had to dig out using a little avalanche shovel that Will had brought with him on the trip.  These things happen, and the team is maintaining a very positive and mutually supportive attitude.



PPS. To add to our challenges, an hour ago a pipe broke outside our Super 8 motel room. The hallway and our doorway were both flooded with water. The hotel has no other room to put us in. That’s lucky, because it would be a monumental effort to move all of our gear, and we have too many other things to do to be ready for tonight.

Nothing can dampen the sublime glory and satisfaction of our amazing nights with the northern lights. We’re about to turn off the large fan that is drying the wet carpet in order to take a little nap.  My teammates are happily snoring away in the bed next to mine, so I need to stop and publish this blog to take some rest myself. You can imagine that our sleeping and eating cycles are pretty jumbled.  Our plan upon waking from the nap at 10pm is to buy 2-for-1 subs (available at the local Subway after 10 pm) on our way to explore a new observing site called Prelude Lake.

On we go!

8 thoughts on “Post 3: Awed by the Arctic Lights – Humbled by the Cold and a Car Crash. An Amazing Night!

  1. Wow! How exciting, Will! What an amazing experience for you all. I know that many will benefit and learn from what you are doing! Can’t wait to hear more when you get back!

  2. Thank you for sharing such amazing images! I just showed these pics with a bunch of teens here in Costa Rica who were sure the pictures were fake and had never even heard of the northern lights, much less could not imagine such freezing temperatures. Thanks for the great work and be safe! Steph Benedict

    • This is a most inspirational post for us. We have made reference to it in our latest blog post. Thank you so much for sharing our images and story!

  3. Wow, what an amazingly emotional and beautiful night…Good for you three, braving all the obstacles in order to document these amazing lights, and thank you so much for bringing them to us! These are truly amazing photographs, and they inspire me to go out explore, and take my own pictures…

    • Yay!!! I LOVE your photos dear Moira…and I look forward to many more years of them…

  4. Cherilynn: You probably don’t remember George and Jane Hastings ( I’m Jane); we met at an Astronomy forum in New Mexico lots of years ago. It was aimed at teachers of college Astronomy. Any way, not important. I just read your account of the aurora sighting and was taken back to January 2 years ago in Tromso, Norway, where George and i were treated to the same amazing phenomenon. And, one just cannot truly explain the thrill of watching it whirling and twisting in amazing configurations. It is a highlight of all my years of sky-watching!

    • Greetings Jane! and thank you so much for your lovely comment. We are happy to evoke such positive memories for you. Yes Tromso is on our list too!! Are you all still based in the southeast? Two of us are in Atlanta now. Duke still in Salt Lake at Clark Planetarium. Duke remembers you well from SEPA conferences! Perhaps we can meet up to swap stories!

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