It is no secret that I love the Aurora. Ever since that one fateful night in July of 2018, when I first saw them accidentally, I have been dying to see a “real” show. By “real,” I mean a good G1/G2 level event. When I saw there was a Labor Day Aurora, I had to chase it!

What’s G1/G2, you ask? Well, they are values from a scale for rating geomagnetic storms. A Geomagnetic storm is a temporary disturbance of the Earth’s magnetosphere. The solar wind stream or cloud then interacts with the Earth’s magnetic field. The result is Aurora. The higher the G number, the more severe the reaction. The current scale goes from G1 up to G5. A G5 event is pretty rare and is typically triggered by an Earth-facing Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) from sunspots. We are currently in a solar minimum cycle, so the sunspots are minimal to non-existent.

CME VS. Coronal Holes

So what caused the G1 and G2 level events over labor day? The answer is a coronal hole. A coronal hole is a region in the corona which is less dense and colder than the surrounding areas. They can occur anytime but are most common during the declining phase of the cycle or in a solar minimum. Coronal holes occur when the Sun’s magnetic field is open to interplanetary space. What is nice about Coronal holes is that they typically last a few solar revolutions. That is the closest we can get to accurately predicting an aurora event, as we saw with the Labor Day event. The month prior, this same Coronal hole sparked a G1 level event in early August. Granted, there still is a margin of error of 24+ hours, but this is still quite amazing.

Spaceweather.com posted up these images of the Coronal Hole responsible for the last two G1 and G2 level events.  Notice the changes in the shape over the 27-day cycle.   
Images courtesy of www.spaceweather.com.
Spaceweather.com posted up these images of the Coronal Hole responsible for the last two G1 and G2 level events. Notice the changes in the shape over the 27-day cycle.
Images courtesy of www.spaceweather.com.

Circling back to this adventure, I told myself I WILL NOT miss another big auroral event, not even if it was a Labor Day Aurora. I’ve seen the smaller shows numerous times. These are events where the aurora is barely visible along the horizon – at least in Northern Michigan. The camera can pick up the colors, but to us, it looks like a whitish-gray band hugging the horizon. The light could easily be confused with light pollution if you if you’re not familiar with it.

I was dying to see something more! Well, up until this point, I have missed out on EVERY large aurora event. Whether work kept me, or I was at an event out of town, it never worked out. This time nothing was going to stop me. Maybe.

Planning – or Lack Thereof

The “fun” in aurora chasing, unlike Milky Way, is the unpredictability is on a different scale. Between the sun’s activity and the weather here on Earth, planning becomes virtually impossible. At least with the Milky Way, we know it will be there every night. So we just need to pick a location based on light pollution or weather.

The whole week leading up to Labor Day, I was working in Decatur, Illinois. All of my downtime was spent looking at satellite images, light pollution maps, and the long term forecast. I wanted to get somewhere very dark for this. Perhaps somewhere new, even! Based on the weather forecasts early on, I was targeting Copper Harbor, MI, located at the northernmost tip of the Upper Peninsula. Overlooking lake superior, it’s a solid Bortle 2 – even a Bortle 1 in spots.

Oh yeah, trying to book a hotel or campsite so close to Labor Day is also virtually impossible. I did manage to find one about an hour south of Copper Harbor. All is good, right? Negative.

The forecast changed. On Thursday, my last day at this event in Decatur, I canceled the hotel. Luckily it didn’t cost anything. I would end up not booking anything since, at this point, I had NO IDEA where to go. Clouds were quickly becoming a significant issue and a serious threat to this Labor Day Aurora event.

Labor Day Aurora – Go Time

I arrived back in Chicago around 11 pm on Thursday. I had a bunch of errands to run on Friday morning, thinking I had until Saturday to get everything done. One thing any Aurora hunter gets used to doing is checking space weather data. I use the Spaceweather’s Mobile App for real-time updates. Well, I noticed that the Hemispheric Power and the Solar Wind were both creeping upward around 12:30 pm. I needed to go and needed to go NOW.

Checking the weather in various areas, I picked Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore near Empire, MI, for my first Labor Day aurora stop. It’s about a 6-hour drive from Chicago, which would end up being longer, because, well, Chicago. And Chicago traffic sucks.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Around 11 pm, I arrived at North Bar Lake in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. To my surprise, I was the only one there! Now, I have been to this location before; it was the spot where I got my first Milky Way reflection photo. What I didn’t realize was just how high the water level was – even on this inland lake. I wasn’t sure if the lakeshore was accessible! So I set up and took a Milky Way shot for old time’s sake. Then I looked for the Northern Lights.

North Bar Lake reflections.  Notice the dock that is submerged.  That was not the case last Summer! Photo by MaryBeth Kiczenski.
North Bar Lake reflections. Notice the dock that is submerged. That was not the case last Summer! Photo by Marybeth Kiczenski.

It wouldn’t be long until I was joined by a young family. They brought firewood and everything. They asked me if I knew how to get to the lake, and I told them I wasn’t sure since the water was so high. I watched as they did find a trail to get to the lakeshore. I soon followed. However, I didn’t go all the way to the shore, as they had a pretty good fire going. I remember being apologized to. However, I was content shooting from the trail.

Labor Day Aurora 2019 - Auroral pillars shining bright over the sand dunes. Photo by MaryBeth Kiczenski.
Auroral pillars shining bright over the sand dunes. Photo by Marybeth Kiczenski.

Around 1 am, the family packed up and left. I would then continue to the lakeshore for a few shots. By this time, the airglow was quite beautiful, too!

2019 Labor Day Aurora - Aurora and Airglow over the shores of Lake Michigan in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Empire, MI. Photo by MaryBeth Kiczenski.
Aurora and Airglow over the shores of Lake Michigan in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Empire, MI. Photo by Marybeth Kiczenski.

I was beyond thrilled! August 30th into 31st, 2019, would end up sparking a few G1 level events. That was the best show I’ve seen so far and was glad to have made the drive since this display was not predicted initially. Remember how these predictions can be 24+ hours off?

Time to Mega Rally

The following morning – er… the same morning, on the second day of my Labor Day Aurora chase, I got a notice from the Spaceweather app that the storm reached G2 level around 9 am Eastern Standard Time. “Oh my word”, I muttered to myself, followed by “it’s early!”. Remember, this was forecast to hit Sunday into Monday morning. This was Saturday. Time to make a plan of attack.

After checking the weather and seeing that the forecast for the northern Lower Peninsula of Michigan changed, I decided to “Mega Rally” and drove the additional 6.5 hours to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore up in the Upper Peninsula. At this point I really had no idea what was going to happen. With G2 level already reached so early on, there was no guarantee that this level of intensity would hold on. It was a risk I was willing to take.

On the Road Again

With batteries charged and the car loaded up, I headed north. I never get tired of seeing the Mackinac Bridge, so despite taking the “scenic” route to Pictured Rocks, the drive was beautiful. FYI – its the same amount of time to get there from Chicago as it was from Sleeping Bear Dunes.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

I arrived at Pictured Rocks right as the sun was starting to set. Of course, I attempted to snag a sunset shot from an overlook called the “Logslide.” I was a bit too late, but the overlook is stunning regardless. I found I brought the wrong lens since I was in a hurry.

At the overlook were two college-aged girls. They asked about the Northern Lights – I don’t think they were prepared for the amount of info they got! I showed them the space weather app and how it was still very active at that time. By this time, the activity dropped to the G1 level, but I told them if they hung out there, that they would defiantly see something once it got dark. It was fun seeing their faces light up!

Sunset over the Logslide overlook. Taken with a 70-200mm lens, but I really needed a wider one! Photo by MaryBeth Kiczenski.
Sunset over the Logslide overlook. Taken with a 70-200mm lens, but I really needed a wider one! Photo by Marybeth Kiczenski.

I contemplated staying at the Logslide, too. But I had a redemption shot in mind, so headed over to Hurricane River. Back in May, I tried to get a Northern Lights shot from Hurricane River, but they never showed. Redemption was in order, and boy did it come in spades!

The Show Begins

As the light fades, a new “light” started to appear. At this point, I no longer had cell service – at all. I couldn’t monitor the data from spaceweather.com anymore. It was purely a “wait and see” game. The new light on the northern horizon was the aurora. And boy was it beautiful. Early on, the lights showed as auroral pillars. They moved ever so graceful on the horizon, ebbing and flowing.

At the start of the night, Lady Aurora danced in pillars. (Sigma ART 35mm - Nikon D850) Photo by MaryBeth Kiczenski.
At the start of the night, Lady Aurora danced in pillars. (Sigma ART 35mm – Nikon D850) Photo by Marybeth Kiczenski.

The pillars would continue to dance for a good 3-4 hours before the intensity dropped off. During this time frame, I saw a few people come and go. I figured there would be, as this event was hyped up pretty good by the media.

Single 4-minute exposure creating some star trails above the rock. (Sigma ART 35mm - Nikon D850) Photo by MaryBeth Kiczenski.
Single 4-minute exposure creating some star trails above the rock. (Sigma ART 35mm – Nikon D850) Photo by Marybeth Kiczenski.
2019 Labor Day Aurora - Wide-angle shot of the pillars on the horizon over the Hurricane River.  (Nikon Z6 - Nikkor 14-24mm) Photo by MaryBeth Kiczenski.
Wide-angle shot of the pillars on the horizon over the Hurricane River. (Nikon Z6 – Nikkor 14-24mm) Photo by Marybeth Kiczenski.

STEVE and the Milky Way

Once the intensity dropped off around 12:30 am EST, some clouds started to roll in. That is when most of the people I saw out that night packed up and left. I committed to the entire night, as I suffer from the world’s worst FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). That would prove to be beneficial.

The clouds began to clear sometime around 1:30 am. I was shooting from behind some trees when I noticed this purple band in the sky above the Aurora. I had a hunch; this was a STEVE and ran down to the beach. Cue ACT 2!

What is a STEVE? A STEVE, i.e., Strong Thermal Emissions Velocity Enhancement, is an aurora-like phenomenon, but it is not an aurora. After some research done at the University of Fairbanks Alaska, they determined that the wavelength that makes up a STEVE is different from the typical aurora, making it a separate phenomenon! They are also a mauve color and occur at lower latitudes. For more on the technical aspect of STEVE, be sure to check out the link at the end of the article.

The purple band above the central Aurora - this is a STEVE (Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement). Photo by MaryBeth Kiczenski.
The purple band above the central Aurora – this is a STEVE (Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement). Photo by Marybeth Kiczenski.

Once I hit the beach, I looked overhead and saw a flash of the “picket fencing” light streak across the sky. It really was a STEVE! I frantically tried to reset the camera up. These tend to move quickly and sometimes do not last long. Luckily, I managed to snag a few shots, even though I missed most of the “picket fencing.”

Labor Day Aurora and STEVE - Close up of a STEVE.  Longer the usual exposure - 30-seconds tracked.  That created more blurring on the phenomenon.  (Nikon Z6 - Nikkor 14-24mm) Photo by MaryBeth Kiczenski.
Close up of a STEVE. Longer the usual exposure – 30-seconds tracked. That created more blurring on the phenomenon. (Nikon Z6 – Nikkor 14-24mm) Photo by Marybeth Kiczenski.

I was able to catch a few shots of the Milky Way with the STEVE, as well! That is truly a bucket-list type shot! The first one does show the green picket fencing light. Both images tracked with a star tracker.

Milky Way and STEVE.  (Nikon Z6 - Nikkor 14-24mm) Photo by MaryBeth Kiczenski.
Milky Way and STEVE. (Nikon Z6 – Nikkor 14-24mm) Photo by Marybeth Kiczenski.
2019 Labor Day Aurora and STEVE. A portrait orientation photo of the Milky Way and STEVE, taken after the image above.  A bit more of the green airglow in this one.  (Nikon Z6 - 14-24mm)  Notice how much the STEVE has changed. Photo by MaryBeth Kiczenski.
A portrait orientation photo of the Milky Way and STEVE, taken after the image above. A bit more of the green airglow in this one. (Nikon Z6 – 14-24mm) Notice how much the STEVE has changed. Photo by Marybeth Kiczenski.

But wait, there’s more!

That’s right; the show wasn’t over yet! Another bank of clouds rolled into view and covered up the show for another hour, give or take. Revealing one of the most incredible sights I’ve ever seen. Cue ACT 3!

While shooting from behind this tree, I noticed the intensity was really starting to ramp up.  I decided to move to another spot.  (Nikon Z6 - Nikkor 14-24mm) Photo by MaryBeth Kiczenski.
While shooting from behind this tree, I noticed the intensity was really starting to ramp up. I decided to move to another spot. (Nikon Z6 – Nikkor 14-24mm) Photo by Marybeth Kiczenski.

The Pulsating Aurora!

There’s only a handful of times where I’m left speechless. That was one of them! The aurora extended almost overhead, and it was PULSATING. I’ve never seen this before in my entire life. It was absolutely incredible! For a minute or two, I stared at the sky above – thoroughly lost in the moment. I forgot about the camera!

Labor Day Aurora - A 14mm wide-angle shot of the pulsating Aurora.  It was so intense that it filled the entire frame!  (Nikon Z6 - Nikkor 14-24mm) Photo by MaryBeth Kiczenski.
A 14mm wide-angle shot of the pulsating Aurora. It was so intense that it filled the entire frame! (Nikon Z6 – Nikkor 14-24mm) Photo by Marybeth Kiczenski.

The pulsating eventually calmed back down into pillars. As the night faded into day, the show continued. The blue hues from twilight created a rather dreamy color cast, which is fitting since the entire night felt like a dream!

First light and the Aurora.  (Nikon Z6 - Nikkor 14-24mm) Photo by MaryBeth Kiczenski.
First light and the Aurora. (Nikon Z6 – Nikkor 14-24mm) Photo by Marybeth Kiczenski.
Labor Day Aurora - As the sky brightened, the colors turned a more pastel pink and green.  I referred to this one as "cotton candy."   (2-image Pano - Nikon Z6 - Nikkor 14-24mm) Photo by MaryBeth Kiczenski.
As the sky brightened, the colors turned a more pastel pink and green. I referred to this one as “cotton candy.” (2-image Pano – Nikon Z6 – Nikkor 14-24mm) Photo by Marybeth Kiczenski.

What an incredible night! Despite having to drive all the way back to Chicago, I can say that this whirlwind Labor Day Aurora trip was 100% absolutely worth the 1300-ish miles of dodging clouds. Even as I write this, it’s hard not to get emotional. The northern lights have always captivated the human spirit and imagination. It serves as a beautiful reminder about the forces at work that keeps us safe from the chaotic and violent universe.

Other Aurora Chasing Articles

You can read Marybeth Kiczenski’s previous aurora chasing article here: Chasing Lady Aurora

Links

www.puremichigan.org
https://www.uptravel.com/
https://www.nps.gov/piro/index.htm
https://www.nps.gov/slbe/index.htm
https://www.spaceweather.com/

Information on STEVE – https://www.space.com/aurora-like-steve-unique-celestial-phenomenon.html

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