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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Chasing The Aurora Borealis

The Northern Lights are in a period of increased activity, and now is the ideal time to be out photographing this dance in the sky

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Kevin Schafer is adamant about not adjusting images in Photoshop. This image shows the un-enhanced colors of an especially vivid aurora. When the conditions are just right, amazing light shows can be seen.
Aurora Basics
The Northern Lights are caused by charged particles thrown off by the sun during periods of intense solar activity. As these particles, e.g., the "solar wind," enter the Earth's atmosphere, they excite the gas molecules in our upper atmosphere, primarily oxygen and nitrogen, causing them to emit light. The more powerful the solar activity, the brighter and more lively are the resulting auroras here on Planet Earth.

Although auroras can appear to dance just overhead, they actually happen very high above the Earth, from 50 to 200 miles up. Most are lime green in color, but also can turn intense shades of purple and red. Keep in mind, though, that not all of the aurora color is visible to the human eye. Some of the intense reds you see in pictures are much less vivid in person, but are intensified with camera time exposures.

Where To Go
The best aurora viewing is within a donut-shaped band, the Auroral Oval, that circles both ends of the globe (the Southern Hemisphere has its own show called the Southern Lights, or Aurora Australis). The Oval passes directly over places like Fairbanks, Alaska, Yellowknife, Canada, and Reykjavik, Iceland, making all three excellent choices for auroras. During periods of intense auroras, the Oval expands, allowing the lights to be seen over a wider area. It takes a truly massive display, which may happen no more than once or twice a year, for the aurora to be visible in the Lower 48.

Online Aurora Resources
There are a number of websites that can help with research and planning for an aurora trip. Some have alert services that will email you—or make a phone call—if activity is expected. Here are a couple of sites that I always have on my Bookmark Bar.

• Aurora Forecast. From the University of Alaska Geophysical Institute, this site lists expected activity levels for the next one to seven days. Also check out their Aurora Forecast iPhone app. www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast/

• NASA. For more information on the aurora and a map of the Auroral Oval, visit NASA's aurora web page at nmp.jpl.nasa.gov/st5/SCIENCE/aurora.html.

Spaceweather.com. This site lists solar activity, as well as many other celestial events, and posts a gallery of recent aurora photos from all over the world. Got some good aurora pictures? You can post them here.
Wherever you go, the first thing you need to do is get out of town; the biggest barrier to good aurora photography is light pollution. There are a number of remote lodges that cater to aurora-watchers (see the "Lodging Options" sidebar). Otherwise, stay in town, rent a car and be prepared to drive to a nighttime location that you've scouted during the day. Sleep? Forget it—auroras can last an hour or all night; if they're really cranked up, you're not going to get to bed until nearly dawn.

When To Go
The aurora can occur any time of year, but in the Land of the Midnight Sun, you're not going to see much between May and September. Just why this should be the case isn't entirely clear, but whatever the reason, these seasons also have the benefit of longer days and milder weather, and offer more things to do when not gazing skyward.

The greatest challenge for sky-watchers is the weather, of course. You can easily spend a week staring up at the bottom of a solid bank of clouds, tortured by the certainty that there's a dazzler going on somewhere up there, but you can't see it. When picking a location, check weather data to see what months tend to have more cloudless nights and then keep your fingers crossed.

Some people prefer to avoid the full moon, whose brightness can diminish the intensity of aurora displays, but moonlight can add a wonderful luminosity to a snowy landscape.

The truth is, the best time to go after auroras is when something is happening on the surface of the sun, a fact that makes it difficult to plan a trip very far ahead. There are a number of websites that track sunspots and "solar weather" and can help predict aurora activity. If you're flexible, wait until you see a stretch of clear weather in the forecast and snag a cheap, last-minute flight north.


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