The aurora awakens: Fairbanks starts off winter strong as solar wind spectator

Last Tuesday, Sept. 20, the sun hurled a mass of plasma at Earth. This flash flood of superheated gas-like particles placed another tick mark toward, finally, the solar maximum expected in 2013.

The sun, simmering in a solar minimum for years, now boils with activity. Earth’s magnetic field was expected to cleave new sprays of energy during the weekend and into the week, allowing some of it to rain down into the atmosphere and supercharge gases. This process lets off the most spectacular fireworks display – the aurora.

We’ve all seen aurora photos — some more evocative of the experience than others. For a new view of the aurora borealis, here’s a stitched-together time lapse from the International Space Station — the birds-eye view visible only to man-made metal birds.

This is what we found. Aurora borealis over the Big Dipper, off Ballaine Road Sept. 27, 2011. Photo by Heather Bryant.

Last Tuesday, Sept. 27, I went with three people (my editor, my roommate and a friend) to hunt the aurora (that is, drive from my cabin out of town for about 10 minutes and wait). Our timing has been off recently – sometimes the aurora flares as we put the paper to bed around 10:30p.m., sometimes I hear of amazing displays around 3 a.m. We figured we might have some luck – hey, even Arizona was expecting some action the night before.

We found a slow-moving stream of green stretching to the Arctic ahead of us. Behind us red clouds from the city glow jutted out against that same green band. My editor, a magician with photography, documented the excursion.

The aurora is a dazzling duet between invisible dancers: the Earth’s magnetic field and the sun’s brute strength. I first saw an active aurora last year, after 16 years in Alaska. At the time, it was a wonder that humans do anything else with their lives than hunt down these masterpieces.

If you want to start aurora-chasing around town, Ballaine Hill is the nearest place to Fairbanks to catch it outside the city glow.

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3 thoughts on “The aurora awakens: Fairbanks starts off winter strong as solar wind spectator

  1. Elika says:

    I love the time lapse aurora video! It was such a cool perspective.

  2. The aurora has been so bright the last few days! I love it.

  3. modog97 says:

    That video is incredible. The northern lights were pretty nice, too. An incredible shot though.. One angle almost nobody sees of the aurora.

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