Aurora Borealis, August 11-12, 2000

by John Rummel


 

I could see it from my driveway as soon as I walked out the front door at 2:45 am. A green curtain of light was suspended above the northern horizon. Even with all the streetlights, it was clearly visible. My mouth dropped open in surprise, and I wasted no time hopping in the car and quickly driving to Indian Lake Park.

Earlier that night at the MAS meeting, I had informed people that I planned to go out to try to observe some Perseid meteors between moonset and sunrise. That narrow window of opportunity meant I could go to bed and sleep until about 2:30, then get to ILP and have a chance to photograph the setting moon, and then count meteors for an hour. Another member mentioned that there was also an aurora alert since a solar flare had erupted about 3 days before. I didn't pay much attention, having been disappointed in the past when such alerts translated into little or no aurora activity.

This skepticism was quickly remedied as soon as I saw the activity from my driveway and on the drive to the park, my goal of photographing the moon was forgotten. I took mental inventory of what I had with me (a single roll of 400 speed film), and kicked myself for not thinking to grab the camcorder. Oh well, no turning back now.

Upon arriving at the park, I saw a few cars and quickly parked without headlights. A couple of teenagers were standing silently by their car and I soon saw why.

The aurora were bright and dramatic nearly from horizon to horizon and all the way to the zenith. It was simply beyond words. Pulsating, rippling sheets of light, coursing across the sky, incredibly bright and well defined lobes, streamers, and tendrils of glowing energy were everywhere.

Nearly at the zenith, but slight south of overhead there was a radiant like apparition of lights that seemed to stream out from a circular point 5 to 10 degrees wide. With the light display at its full, throbbing intensity, this star-like explosion simply hung there silently, with shimmering daggers and ribbons of light trailing off in all directions. I have since learned that this is known as the "aurora corona," visible when the display is viewed from directly underneath. I don't know what early peoples thought of spectacles like this, but it was difficult to imagine not being terrified at such an awesome array, silently rippling through the night sky.

The Perseid meteors would have been inconsequential in the face of such a stunning event, but several excellent fireballs added accent to the evening.

The display was brightest and most intense for about 30 to 45 minutes after I arrived. I was initially struck by how bright it was everywhere, not just north. Jupiter and Saturn were beautifully framed by the constellation Taurus, about 30 degrees above the eastern horizon. Even there, the intensity of the glowing, changing light was so striking that I framed my first photograph from that part of the sky. Having forgotten to bring my timer, or even a wristwatch, I simply counted off my exposures and tried to vary them between 20 and 60 seconds apiece. My sense of scientific scrutiny was simply overwhelmed by the beauty and wonder playing out in the skies that night.

This was only my second chance to view an aurora, and it was so arresting and wonderful that it completely overshadowed the first - last year at the same location. As dawn approached the display tailed off considerably, but the lights playing over the northern horizon and up toward the zenith were still awesome. The peak display this night was simply unbelievable, and provided me with an unforgettable observing experience.

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