Scores of Alaskans turn out for celestial light show

Wednesday, March 14, 2012 - 20:00
The aurora borealis — or “northern lights” — are seen overhead in this photo taken recently near Eagle River. A large solar storm has made for ample viewing opportunities of the famous celestial lights in recent days, with many vantage points near town ideal for catching a glimpse of the show.

The evening of March 8, a Thursday, was nothing short of a celestial extravaganza. A full moon vied with the aurora borealis to create a spectacular light show across the skies, while Venus and Jupiter played tag as they crouched above the western horizon.

The planets appeared very close together, but in reality, the more distant Jupiter was millions of miles away from our solar system neighbor, Venus.

I drove up to Eklutna Lake about 10 p.m. because it is one of the best dark-sky locations around, and was surprised to see scores of cars in the parking lots, and warmly dressed people standing outside their vehicles gazing skyward.

Most of the dazzling display from earlier in the evening had faded by the time I got out of my pickup truck and glanced toward the northern skies. I talked briefly with an amateur photographer, Mick, who had his tripod and camera at the ready, waiting patiently for the aurora to resume its captivating dance.

“It’s just teasing us now,” he said. “I want it to come up over Twin Peaks so I can get some mountains in the picture. What kind of camera do you have?” He asked.

“My camera doesn’t have a way of taking time exposures,” I said. “I’m just here to watch the show.”

Our patience was rewarded in about 20 minutes as a green and white curtain began to unfold in the northwest and gradually stretch above us and to the south. A faint trace of pink could be seen undulating in the expanding, billowing curtain. In the dark I could see Mick clicking away on his camera, hopefully getting those long-awaited, hard-sought shots.

Over the years in Alaska, I’ve observed some rather unique auroral displays and wish I’d been skilled enough to photograph them. One of the best occurred at Nancy Lake in the early 1960s in the month of October. My sister and I always took a last boat ride of the year before the lake froze, and on this night the aurora was out in full force. Motoring out to the middle of the lake and away from cabin lights, we watched the aurora begin to build from a single point, an apex, above our heads. Then it quickly radiated outward and down like a blue and red umbrella, or dome, completely surrounding us.

I heard my sister, who was generally quite talkative, exclaim, “oh!” That was about all I could muster as we looked up, mouths hanging open, transfixed by a shower of light that lasted about 15 minutes.

On an Alaska Department of Fish and Game field study on the upper Kuskokwim River in September 1971, I witnessed another unusual display. Inside my tent I tried tuning in Fairbanks station KFAR on my small, battery-powered radio — a station I received the night before. All I could get was loud static up and down the dial. I noticed that there was light outside the tent and when I looked out, waves of white light were dancing all around me, incredibly close. It was as if the aurora was right down on the ground!

And yes, I thought I heard them hissing, but I can’t prove it. In hindsight, I should have tried to make an audio recording over the years because I really do think I’ve heard them.

While ancient civilizations thought the aurora was a visitation from the Gods, or an omen from the spirits, we now know that they are the result of collisions between gaseous particles in the Earth's atmosphere with charged particles released from the sun's atmosphere. Variations in color are due to the type of gas particles that are colliding. The most common aurora color, a pale yellowish-green, is produced by oxygen molecules located about 60 miles above the earth. Rare, all-red auroras are produced by high-altitude oxygen, at heights of up to 200 miles.

In the 1950s I witnessed one of those all-red auroras in Seward, and I’ve since learned that it was seen as far south as Texas and Mexico.

Some might say that the mystery and intrigue of the aurora is gone now that we have a scientific explanation for its existence. Seeing all the cars patrolling around last Thursday night, parked along the roadways north of Eagle River and up at Eklutna Lake, I think the aurora borealis is far from losing its appeal.

And for anyone who has not yet seen them, find a dark-sky location on a clear night, dress like you’re going on a polar expedition, drag along a lawn chair and even a sleeping bag to throw over you, add a thermos of hot chocolate or coffee, and wait. The source of these lights is being generated 91 million miles away. We need to have a little patience.


Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.

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