Solar Events Trigger Amazing Light Shows. 

Somewhere in the middle of a cold Alaska winter night while the Aurora displays it's brilliant light, you might find Jan Curtis and his camera capturing images of the beautiful phenomenon. 

The Aurora Borealis, otherwise known as the Northern Lights, are most predominate north of the Arctic Circle. But, on occasion, they can be seen as far south as Cuba and maybe even further south than that, according to Curtis.

Curtis, a retired naval officer, now works as a Climate researcher for the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. He has all his film developed by Kodak and figures he has taken as many as 1,500 photos of the Northern Lights in the last 5 years. His images are so popular in fact, they have been used in many publications and illustrations. The photo above, was presented to the Prime Minister of Japan in May of 1999 and featured in NASA's APOD. 

What Causes The Aurora? 

When the sun has what's known as a coronal mass ejection, otherwise known as a solar flare, it sends solar wind containing protons and electrons into space. If earth happens to be in the path of these solar winds when they pass by, the elements strike the magnetosphere, the area above earths magnetic poles, and generate a virtual magnetic and Auroral storm. 

When components of the upper atmosphere such as nitrogen and oxygen are bombarded by the solar wind, they become excited, generating different colors. The predominant color is green, Curtis explains. But reds and blues are also possible depending on the type of molecules the solar wind is interacting with. Much the same as the colors you see in a neon light, he added. 

When Can They Be Seen? 

During a recent interview with Curtis, he said, "There's a long term cycle, which is known as the 11 year sun spot cycle, which we are actually at the solar maximum point as we speak. For the next several years there will be more opportunities for the Aurora to occur." 

The best time for seeing the Aurora according to Curtis, is during the winter and early spring. Mainly because these seasons produces some of the clearest skies. If you were living in a big city, the chances are you would never even know they were there due to the city light or pollution. However, the further north you go, the better your chances will be to observe them, mainly because they are more frequent. 

During the winter in Alaska, Curtis explains, the sun doesn't rise north of the Arctic circle. At that point, the Aurora would be best for viewing in the northern hemisphere. In the northern hemisphere you have the northern lights, otherwise known as the Aurora Borealis. In the southern hemisphere you have the southern lights, known as the Aurora Australis. However, when you consider there isn't any land within several hundred miles of the Antarctic, the northern lights are your best bet and Alaska is your best choice. Unless of course you were in space.


NASA's SOHO spacecraft, or Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, follows events such as eruptions on the sun in real time. The reason being, large Auroral events can trigger disruptions in communications and even power outages. 

The speed of the solar wind is determined by the size of the solar flare, but speeds of 2 million miles per hour are average. That offers some form of early warning, but NASA's ACE spacecraft, short for Advanced Composition Explorer which sits 1.6 million miles closer to the sun, gives us 45 minutes of warning time. It also gives a more accurate account of what size of event can be expected. That provides crucial lead time for power companies to "power down," before power grids are overloaded.

NASA photo of the Aurora from space.
A large Auroral storm in September of 1971 generated power grid problems, and transformers in British Columbia even exploded. During a solar maximum event in 1989, a power grid in Quebec blew out, putting six million people without power for nine hours. So monitoring solar flares and predicting Auroral events are vital to our welfare where power and communications are concerned. 

Although the Aurora never comes closer than about 60 miles from earth's surface, it can extend as high as 300 miles. Curtis explains the static electricity from such events generate other problems as well. 

Hearing The Aurora 

Some have claimed they can actually hear it. However, Curtis explains, that's impossible due to the altitude at which they occur. Since they are happening in space, they are occurring inside a vacuum. And if there's no atmosphere for sound to propagate from, you can't hear anything. 

However, Curtis said, "Alaska is famous for the Alaskan Pipeline that travels 600 miles from the north part of Alaska through the gulf of Alaska 600 miles to the south, and they actually have to insulate the pipeline against static discharge. It's quite an amazing thing. It's almost like an electrical storm. (a thunderstorm). The static can build up to tremendous amounts, so what people are hearing, especially in the most intense displays, are probably that phenomenon." 

Curtis said the Aurora is monitored around the world all the time. National Public Radio used specialized equipment aimed at the Aurora and has captured sounds coming from it. The results were remarkable to say the least. What was captured was a series of swishes, choruses and crackling noises. 

Some early researchers, who claimed to have heard them, discovered that when their eyes were covered they couldn't hear them, but when they were looking at it, they could. A possible explanation: the light interacting with nerves in the eyes, sending impulses to the brain, thus creating sound within the observer's head.

Experts say that predictions of such events can't be predicted by more than a few days in advance. But, Curtis explains, predicting Auroral storms is actually better than predicting the weather. "The key to actually seeing them is patience." 

Thanks to ACE, the exact time and magnitude of displays are narrowing that down. 

Curtis explains that if you miss an Auroral event, don't be discouraged. The sun rotates on it's axis and takes 28 days until it faces the earth again. So if you missed this one, about 4 weeks from now you stand a good chance of seeing it. 

In the land of the midnight sun, Alaskan temperatures can easily dip to a chilly
-40 to -60 below zero. When taking pictures of the Northern Lights Curtis explains, it's not always that extreme, but you can expect temperatures near or slightly below zero. However, Curtis offers these words of advice. "A good goose down parka, insulated boots and warm gloves should keep you warm enough."

Final Thoughts
Although the Northern Lights don't happen all that frequently in shallow latitudes, they do on occasion make an appearance. 

"They're a phenomenon that once you see, you want to see over and over again because they are very beautiful. But as I emphasized before, the key to actually being successful in seeing them is patience. Sometimes it's really cold outside and you don't want to be there, but when the displays start up, you forget about the cold and really enjoy what you're observing," Curtis said. 

Considering most people never see the Aurora and the solar maximum condition now, a trip to Alaska, or keeping an eye on solar activity, could provide those with patience the opportunity of a lifetime.


The man behind the images, Jan Curtis, climate researcher for the University of Alaska Geophysical Institute, Fairbanks,

Interview - Hear Jan Curtis in his own words.
National Public Radio report - Hear the sounds of the Aurora.
Photos - Jan Curtis' fantastic collection of Aurora images.
Videos of the Aurora.
Alaska Division of Tourism - Important traveler information
Aurora forecast - Shows current expected location of Aurora Borealis.
SOHO - Real time images of the sun. Includes SOHO real time screen saver link.
POES - Real time Aurora images from space covering the north and south poles.
NASA's APOD - Astronomy Picture Of the Day (Current and Archive).
News | Weather | People | Rescues | Gallery 
Yahoo! | Yahoo! R/C | Visit Our Guestbook | Sign Our Guestbook 


This work may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without the express written permission of the author. Further, this work may not be transmitted or stored by any means including, electrical, electronic, mechanical or by any other means without the express written permission of the author. 
Copyright © 2000 - 2003 David Lee Johnson. All rights reserved. 
Get the latest version of Explorer, or Netscape.
Please read our Disclaimer.