The Aurora Borealis, aka the Northern Lights have captured the imaginations of us mere mortals since the beginning of time. There is something mythical and magical about seeing this phenomenon dance in the sky that stirs the soul. As beautiful as they are, these lights act as a reminder of the many forces at work keeping life on earth safe from the sun’s radiation and high-energy particles.
Last July, I was lucky enough to see the lights in a rather “weak” display near Paradise, MI. (Fitting name!) Honestly, they looked like standard run-of-the-mill light pollution on the horizon; a white-ish glow. However, they moved. On a hunch, I pulled the car over and set up the camera. What I saw on the back screen changed my life forever. There they were – the greens, yellows, and purples of the Northern Lights! In addition to the Aurora, another phenomenon was visible – a Steve. Steves are actually not Auroras, and typically happen in the lower latitudes. The Alberta Aurora Chasers first observed and documented this. As such, they gained the naming rights, calling it a Steve. Which is a nod to the movie “Over the Hedge”. The science world later gave it a backronym – Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement. We are only starting to unravel the mystery surrounding what a Steve is. More on this topic can be found in this link:
Addicted to the Aurora.
Long story short, I became addicted, as if I need more subjects to be obsessed with. One of the perks regarding Midwest life is the relative ease of access to witnessing the Northern Lights. Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota lie in an area where the Auroral Oval dips down, allowing these upper Midwestern states to view Auroras at lower latitudes. For example, Marquette, MI lies along the 46th parallel, and Seattle, WA, lies along the 47th. Yet, Aurora sightings are much more common in Marquette.
Learning the Aurora Language.
The first aspect to consider on your Aurora chasing adventure is the sun’s activity. Since, well, without the sun, we wouldn’t have the Aurora. The displays we see are a visual representation of the earth’s magnetosphere reacting to high energy particles from the sun. It is this “forcefield” that protects us from the onslaught of these particles and thus protects us. As of right now, the sun is in a Solar Minimum cycle. Every 11 years or so, the sun goes through these cycles of intensity. Generally speaking, solar minimums don’t trigger the large, epic, displays people usually visualize when the topic comes up. However, there’s been several G1 and G2 level Geomagnetic storms since entering the minimum.
Kp and Bz – Oh my!
There are several other data points to look at when predicting chances of seeing the lights. For simplicity sake, the two that most of us non-scientists look at are the Kp-index and the Bz. The Kp-index is used to characterize the magnitude of geomagnetic storms. Kp is an excellent indicator of disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic field, and thus the size of the Aurora. This number is used to issue watches and warning about impending geomagnetic storms. A Kp index of 5 will trigger an alert for a G1 Geomagnetic storm. This is where things get exciting for people who wish to view the Aurora. Circle back to the conversation about location, a Kp 5 will almost guarantee sightings in the lower latitudes in the midwest, where as Seattle still *may* need something stronger.
The second piece of the puzzle is the Bz number. Bz is the solar wind’s magnetic orientation in the up/down direction. A negative Bz helps the solar wind grab the earth’s magnetic field which can more easily lead to an Aurora. When you hear someone refer to the “Bz going south”, this is good for those hoping to see the lights dance. In the image above, the KP index that night was a 3 and still visible from the Upper Peninsula. Once again, illustrating how Michigan’s location is quite special for us in the Continental U.S. We don’t necessarily have to head to Canada or Alaska to see the Northern Lights. Granted, if you want the experience of seeing them overhead, then you will want to book a trip further north. The lower latitudes need a stronger geomagnetic storm to experience the lights overhead. It has happened before, but it is much rarer.
To road trip or not to road trip.
All this leads back to the fact on Jan 2nd, 2019, a G1 Geomagnetic storm watch was issued by NOAA. Now, I have missed all the prior events, either out of town working, or the weather was cruddy. I checked the weather forecast for Marquette, and it was showed sunny. No way I was going to miss this opportunity! In typical Midwest fashion, though, that forecast changed an hour later to cloudy. I spent a good 2.5 hours on that Wednesday going back and forth about making the drive up there. After checking all the weather sites – weather.com, weatherunderground.com, accuweather.com, cleardarksky.org, and clearoutside.com, getting different forecasts from all of them, I just decided to take the chance. I threw my gear in a bag and headed north.
Six hours to paradise! (Chicago, IL to Marquette, MI)
I arrived Thursday night with plans to shoot landscapes for Friday, and hope that the clouds didn’t ruin the chance to see the lights. Woke up at 5am to start the winter landscape adventure. Drove down to the small town of Au Train, MI for sunrise. Camped out, watching the stars fade, I rubbed my eye and a contact fell out. Straight into the sand. Now here is something I never planned for. I had to drive 26 miles back to the hotel in hopes that I brought spares. This did not detour me from photographing that sunrise though. Half blind or not! Nature did not disappoint! Even through one eye, the colors were amazing. I’m glad these turned out and in focus, as I couldn’t tell. 😉
The drive back with one good eye was interesting. I’m happy to report that I did bring spare contacts and therefore did not have to endure the rest of this trip like a pirate. This does make me think about getting some spare glasses, as if both contacts were lost, I would not be able to drive home.
“Don’t go chasing waterfalls” – or do!
The back track to the hotel cost me an hour or two of “lost” time, as I planned to head straight to Munising, MI after the sunrise for frozen waterfall photography. However, most of the time, things happen for a reason. The reason behind this incident was running into some awesome locals at Munising Falls, who would then let me tag along to other waterfalls I wasn’t aware of. Jeff Goff, his wife, Loret, and their friend, Kim made for awesome company and we had a blast shooting the frozen waterfalls.
We parted ways around 2:30pm, as they had dinner plans to get to. I would head back to Marquette, recharge batteries and look for a spot to take a sunset shot. Mind you, I checked the weather and the forecast now called for overcast starting at 7pm. To say my heart sank would be an understatement. I tried my best to stay positive.
Sun fades into Night
As the sun began to sink, I drove back towards Au Train, MI. Decided to stop at this small roadside park, as the colors started to explode. The sunset was equally as beautiful as the sunrise. Mother nature is truly the best artist!
Now was the moment I’ve been waiting for all day. Will the lights make a showing or not? I checked the Aurora app, and noticed that the Kp-index was already nearing 5, and the Bz shifted south. This indicated that there was activity. The moment of truth would soon be revealed.
The Dance of Lady Aurora!
Around 7:30pm, as the last shreds of light faded, I took a few test shots, and on the back of the camera, there they were! Faint, but the northern lights were there! I jumped for joy! It was going to happen! As the darkness grew, so did the intensity. I eventually saw the white-ish arch on the horizon without the aid of the camera. It was absolutely incredible. Even though there were still passing clouds, I was absolutely beyond the moon in happiness.
The peak of the display happened about 10:30-11PM EST. I only captured a few images during this, as the clouds rolled in and rolled in fast. The Kp index showed 5.67, and for the first time I could SEE the greenish hue of the lights and the actual curtains of light dance. (The show from July wasn’t as strong, and couldn’t make out the curtains with the naked eye.) It was so beautiful, so incredible, that I *may* have shed a tear. There’s nothing that can compare to the absolute beauty of the forces of nature at work. Nothing.
A night fulfilled.
Although the clouds would cut the show a little short, I was grateful that they held off as long as they did. This night would be one I’ll never forget. If my FOMO (fear of missing out) was bad before, the amplification is ten-fold now, since, well… I almost didn’t go.
Thanks for the show, mother nature! Here’s to hoping for more chasing adventures to come!