Page 1

The Northern Lights celestial performances of the aurora borealis

Photography by Daryl Pederson & Calvin Hall


I dedicate this book to a couple of outstanding men that I have known and admired my entire life. Despite being the tallest of the bunch, I will always look up to you, my brothers, Rance and Brian. — D.P. To my dad Lee. The joy of being surrounded and astounded by God's handiwork from the earliest days outdoors with you was, and is, a great blessing. Thank you for sharing that blessing with me! — C.H.

Photographs copyright © 2015 by Daryl Pederson and Calvin Hall Text copyright © 2015 by Ned Rozell All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form, or by and electronic, mechanical, or other means, without the prior written permission of the publisher. Printed in China Published by Sasquatch Books

Editor: Gary Luke Production editor: Emma Reh Photographs: Daryl Pederson and Calvin Hall Design: Merina Mesa Library of Congress Catalogingin-Publication Data is available. ISBN: 978-1-63217-001-9 Sasquatch Books 1904 Third Avenue, Suite 710 Seattle, WA 98101 (206) 467-4300

The Northern Lights

The Northern Lights celestial performances of the aurora borealis

Photography by Daryl Pederson & Calvin Hall





chasing lights.

aurora birth.




getting there.



the heavens.

the pictures.



purple haze.

lime light.



blue moon.

red sea.



yellow sunrise.

star dust.

01 chasing lights


01 / chasing lights

chasing the northern lights

“Will man ever decipher the characters which the ever colorful Aurora Borealis draws in fire on the dark night sky?” Sophis Tromholt wrote in 1885. “Will his eye ever penetrate the mysteries of Creation which are hidden behind this dazzling drapery of color and light?” Tromholt, a Danish teacher and physicist, was perhaps the first scientist to be paid to ponder the northern lights. More than a century after his passing, his question is still valid. Scientists have the tools Tromholt never imagined: satellites so numerous it is difficult to glimpse of a still patch of sky, Navy-surplus missiles racing, and measuring devices through the auroral zone nearly one hundred miles above with low-frequency microphones that can hear the aurora’s voice. Using those instruments and others, we have learned a few primary facts about the aurora borealis. Among them is that it is a gift from the sun above, one that appears almost every dark night if you live in Fort Yukon, Alaska, or somewhere else near the Arctic Circle. Auroras appear somewhere above Earth at all times, while the sun continually spews a solar wind that takes two or three days to cover the 92 million miles to Earth. That breath flows over marble Earth like a stream of curls around a rock. As it licks the planet, the solar wind’s particles react with our magnetic field, causing electric power that is the fuel of the aurora.


Photo: Ridge top Rendezvous-Matanuska Peak hosts a wild burst of early morning spring aurora.

The aurora’s most common form is a pale green halo around the northern and southern ends of the earth. That’s why you can see the auroras on almost every dark, clear night in extreme northern places, and why some researchers of the aurora observatories near Fairbanks, Alaska, face their windows north. The aurora has other predictable shapes, from blobs that flash on and off to the big splash of corona that gives a view from directly under the curtain to the climatic substorms that explodes several times a night. Though some scientists have devoted decades to the study of aurora, some, such as Syun-Ichi Akasofu at the University of Alaska, admit there remains more to learn that the sum of what we have discovered. The immeasurable electrical discharge created by the solar wind’s collisions with reactive atoms clinging to the Earth is visible because it is so close. Green auroras usually happen about sixty miles over our heads. And as the discharge from the solar winds reacts with hot gases, in this case oxygen, it causes them to glow like a bright neon light. Akasofu, is a northern lights expert who was born in Japan but has also lived most of his life in Alaska, once suggested using auroras as a detector of life on distant planets. He figures that since green and red auroras above Earth occur because plants are exhaling oxygen, the auroras above other planets may also be showing the same thing. Scientists have tried to make sense of reports of some people hearing a hiss during a display but have failed to come up with an explanation. Alaska researcher, Tom Hallinan, who has heard it for himself, has said his logical mind had trouble reconciling the sound with the fact that the thin air of the ionosphere—home to auroras sixty to more than two hundred miles above us—can’t carry sound waves. Even if the auroras were buzzing up there, because of delays caused by the speed of sound, the hisses would require several minutes to travel back to Earth. Hallinan said the voice of the auroras was ”scientifically unreasonable” but also the space physicist admitted he was a believer.

Photo: The northern lights dance in the sky above Fish Lake off the Talkneeta Spur Road on a beautiful and frigid (about negative 30 degrees) February night.

Photo: Saint Patrick’s Day lights up south-central Alaska.

In the 2,000 acres of snowy woods surrounding the lsuh University of Alaska, there are many sensitive microphones attached to plastic like tubes that fan out like spider’s legs along the icy ground. Researchers are installing about a half dozen or so systems to detect the very low frequency hums made by various disturbances to the atmosphere, the 30-mile shell of gases so necessary for keeping us alive. The fundings came from government agencies very interested in detecting nuclear explosions from a quite a distance. The scientists also found that their

infrasound microphones recorded other odd things too, such as the rumble of surf in the Gulf of Alaska 500 miles away, and the belches of fiery volcanoes, and also to their surprise—electronic squiggles on a graph that correspond to a ripping aurora. There is proof the aurora is whispering a sound that of woolly mammoths, which, like elephants, probably had the keen ability to hear extremely low frequencies—and might have heard as they stomped the North during the last ice age. 10

01 / chasing lights

“the solar wind's particles react without magnetic field, causing electric power that is the fuel of the aurora.�


Photo: An abandoned bridge over the Knick River.

02 aurora birth


02 / aurora birth

the birth of an auroa

Red auroras occur much higher than all the common green auroras, more than 200 plus miles overhead. The Red auroral displays happen so high up they are the only forms of aurora seen from the mid-latitudes. People observe small tinges of red alongside the fringes of the auroral curtains and even more cameras show them. However, for the true experience, you are lucky if you ever see a sky that is blood red. Great auroras are born of a strong solar flare, an incredible explosion on the sun, that is propelled in the direction of our Earth by the solar wind. Red auroras are unpredictable but in the recent past, they have tended to bunch themselves around periods when the solar cycle, which is an 11-year period of a strong sun activity, features a lot of red solar flares. True red auroras occurred in 1839, 1938, 1989, 2000, & 2011.

We gain comfort in explanations, but until scientists have acquired all the instruments to confirm their intuitions, imagination remains the rule. Studies at the Inuit of Labrador, Canada, believe the aurora to be the light from torches of spirts illuminating a pathway to heaven for the souls of people “who have died a sorry voluntary or violent death”, according to anthropologist Ernest Hawkes, who published his own account in 1916. In a story collected by the famous Danish explorer, Knud Rasmussen, during expeditions from Greenland to the Pacific from 1921 to 1924, describe the northern lights as the pathway to the heavens: “It’s here, spirits are constantly playing ball, the Eskimo’s favorite game, laughing and singing, while the ball they play with is the skull of walrus”.

Photo: In the morning twilight, an intense aurora brightens the sky.

when the colors occur.



red 200-500 km

green 120-200 km






80-120 km 50 aircraft 10 km


Photo: North of Palmer looking toward the Talkeetna Mountains.


Photo: Night travelers often encounter the northern lights when driving high latitudes of central Alaska, such as Twelve Mile Summit north of Fairbanks.


03 photography


03 / photography

daryl pederson & calvin hall Daryl Pederson & Calvin Hall know the feeling of discovery that kept the turn-of-the-century drift miner hacking a frozen gravel through the dark winter: if one keeps at it, there is always a chance a thumb-size nugget will show. In the photographer’s case, if they keep subjecting themselves to enough nights of silent devotions and cold discomforts, the aurora will reward them with a spontaneous composition different from all the others. Since the aurora borealis occurs the most often as a halo over the North Pole, the closer one gets to the top of the world the higher the probability of photographing it—and the better chance of feeling a cold powerful air enough to sap batteries and nip fingers. The longtime residents of the zone of great aurora viewing, know the price these men have paid to capture the auroras on plastic film and wafer-stored pixels. Both men’s careers extend back the days before aurora forecasts and cloud-free probabilities appeared on any digital pocket device. Pederson remembers at first convincing a few of his friends to join him on frigid hilltops after he’d slugged a Red Bull at about eleven o’clock at night. He had enthusiastic takers early on, but almost no one repeated the cold experience. And most of his aurora expeditions have been solitary endeavors, as they also have been for Hall. Although the two men have been side-by-side, their tripods clinging to the frozen ground, as they talk on mobile phones, each sharing updates on aurora activity at his chosen location.

Photo: As daylight takes over, there is time to celebrate the northern light’s dusk-until-dawn performance.


Daryl figures that he misses capturing a great aurora picture about nine out of every ten attempts. But ten percent is still pretty good, he still figures, especially when the effort rewards him like it did on a November night long ago. He pulled on his parka and ventured out from his home near Girdwood, Alaska, late at night to see the snow glowing red. The hills reflected on one of those auroras that made his heart beat like he was a hunter hearing twigs snap at the approach of a bull moose.

03 / photography

Up on a cold hillside above the Turnagain Arm, Pederson shot for an hour in a state he describes as ”stunned” before clouds began obscuring his compositions. He then packed his gear and drove an arc around Cook Inlet to the city of Hope, Alaska. There, he found his perfect spot. A faint moon provided definition for his foreground—snow crystals twinkling like a field of rubies. He felt the thrill of thumbing his cable shutter, knowing he was capturing something so new and majestic. Looking toward the bright lights of Anchorage—Alaska’s largest city across the Turnagin Arm, he thought of the thousands sleeping through the magic. Hope clouded over within five quick minutes of his captures. Thinking of his day job that would start in a few hours, Pederson drove home. There, he took a hot shower and pondered his magical night. As the dawn lit his living room windows, he by habit looked upward. There, the aurora was still active, mixing with the first scattered rays of the dawn. He ran out on his deck wearing only a towel. It was there that he shot for about twenty minutes until the morning light quenched the display. His hair frozen into an ice helmet, but he had the rarest of prizes on his rolls of film, along with the delicious anticipation that accompanied the wait for development. He remembers that November night of 2001 as his “walk-off grand slam.”


Photo: Calvin Hall takes a self-portrait while photographing an aurora near Eureka, Alaska. Lights from cars on the Glenn Highway shine in the distance.

“tripods clinging to frozen ground...�

Photo: An end-of-the season aurora on May 2 in the Talkeetna Mountains. By this time of year south-central Alaska never gets fully dark at night.



Photo: The Swanberg Dredge, a 1940s mining relic and now historical landmark, sits on the edge of the gold rush town of Nome, Alaska, on a brutally cold night.

Photo left: The sculpted snow gives an account of typical weather conditions atop Curry Ridge where this mountain house provides shelter against the merciless wind.


Where to photograph the northern lights in Alaska.

Sagwon Ambler

Point Hope Fairbanks

Holy Cross

Anchorage Pilot Point


04 getting there


04 / getting there

the best seat in the house Scientists say that the northern lights, or the aurora borealis are always present near the far north, even when we can’t see them due to daylight or cloud cover. Usually they remain withdrawn inside the auroral zones, a vertical corridor that encircles the Northern sky's along an oval track that is about a thousand miles from the frigid magnetic North Pole. Due to the North Pole being located near the Canadian Arctic about 800 miles south near the geographic North Pole, the northern lights are much more visible in Canada and near Alaska than Europe or Asia. When the auroral oval is relatively calm, its centerlines transects the northern thirds of Alaska almost directly above the Arctic's village of Fort Yukon. On dark, cloudless winter nights near Fort Yukon, the chances of observing the lights are 100 percent. Out in Fairbanks, 125 miles south of Fort Yukon, the odds

for the same conditional are eighty percent. In Anchorage, still farther south, they dip to about forty o so percent, in Ketchikan about twenty percent, in Seattle to five percent, and in San Francisco, one percent. A viewing probability of just one percent means that it’s possible to glimpse an aurora three or four nights a year, provided the view isn’t obscured by clouds, lights, or air pollution. This is possible because every so often the solar wind—the ionized gas exhaled by the hot Sun that powers the aurora—increases in speed and density. As it does, the solar particles excite the Earth’s magnetic fields in a big way that causes the circumference of the auroral ovals to expand and then slip southward near the equator. Aurora researches often liken the phenomenon's to an expanding halo slipping down the “heads” of globe. Small increases in these

geomagnetic activity can easily propel the aurora as far south as Anchorage or Whitehorse; larger increases can send it far racing towards Vancouver, and British Columbia or St. Paul Minnesota. Which is what occurred on that early November night as the world revolved a little bit closer toward a new millennium. Sky watchers in Alaska saw a lot more colors in auroras than usual, and northern lights shows that are more typical of Anchorage extended far to the south, and then treating residents of Seattle to spectacular displays. About one hundred years after the fabled Klondike gold rush of 1998, a great red aurora began dancing over the Alaska Range.


The date was November 7, 1998. In Healy, Alaska, about 75 miles northeast of icy Mount McKinley, a stranger in the snow outside a log cabin café pounded on the icy window and pointed up to the sky. The Science writer Ned Rozell of Fairbanks set down his cheeseburger and stepped outdoors to see what the the man was intent on sharing—and then he saw it: the rare purple aurora flowing like a river overhead. ”Soon the entire restaurant staff and I were all shivering outside”, Rozell later wrote. Even the older sourdoughs who had seen hundreds of displays started whooping in awe. This was no ordinary aurora. Soon enough, 125 miles south of McKinley, residents of Anchorage saw the auroras too. At first, they appeared much like a giant curtain connecting the Chugach Mountains

out to the far east with a distant horizon of active volcanoes, to the west. And then the curtain began to ripple. The aurora light seemed to skip around from one place to the next, tossing many Technicolor rays at the watchers. “Oooh!” murmured voices from the crowd that had begun to assemble outside a big blue ocean bluff at the Earthquake Park. Some people even climbed on top of their cars to get a better view. “Ahhh!” they cried, as the lights pulsed colors from green to yellow, to pink. Walking around toward my barn in a mountain valley 15 miles to the southeast, I just watched the colors shine even brighter just beyond the lights of town.

Photo: Taken by the edge of the Knick River just as the aurora was starting to come out.

“flowing like a river overhead...�

Photo: After a night of strong auroras, the clear sky looks somewhat hazy, but that diffused look is from a remnant, disorganized aurora. To the eye, this aurora has a pulsing rhythm to it.



05 the heavens


05 / the heavens

the spirts in the northern sky Ancient Scandinavians saw the northern lights as the departed souls of strong, beautiful women hovering in the air; or the ethereal forms of girls running around a fireplace; or images of women who had never married cooking fish over campfires and dancing. Early Norwegians thought the aurora was the sun reflecting off the shields of the Valkyries, the warrior maidens who descended onto battlefields to choose among the slain those most worthy to reside in Valhalla. More recently, the Greenland Eskimos thought the aurora was the special province of all the children who had died in childbirth or by some other violent means. Sometimes these spirits were happy, and their dancing created the streamers of the northern lights; and sometimes they were resentful, rushing down toward Earth to prevent the newly dead from reaching their realm. By comparison, the Labrador Eskimos of Eastern Canada believed the northern lights were the torches of friendly spirits trying to help those who had recently died to negotiate a narrow path over the chasm that separated the living world from the afterlife. “The whistling crackling noise which sometimes accompanies the aurora is the voices of these spirits trying to communicate with the people of the Earth!” wrote the Canadian anthropologist Ernest Hawkes in 1916 (though scientists say the northern lights are not capable of emitting sound). “They should always be answered in a whispering voice.”

Photo: An aurora dances over the spires of the Matanuska Glacier in early April. A partial moon shining through the thin clouds brightens the scene.

Few people knew the aurora as well as the wide-ranging Inuit, the Eskimo people, who populated the Arctic from Siberia to Alaska to Canada and to Greenland. They lived closer to the magnetic North Pole than anyone else. Their home was the auroral zone. When they died, according to members of tribe Eastern Canadian Eskimos interviewed near the early twentieth century, the most fortunate among them spent their next life in the skies, in the Land of Day, where dead Inuit tribes occasionally clashed in a great auroral soccer game.

05 / the heavens

In the 1920s, Danish explorer, Knud Rasmussen, heard stories about this afterlife while traveling 4,000 miles by Husky dogsleds from Greenland to Alaska, living among the Inuit and listening to their tales. ”It is said that the Land of Day is the land of glad and happy souls,” he wrote. “The people there live only for pleasure. They usually play ball most of the time, playing at football with the skull of a walrus, and laughing and singing as they play. It is this game of the souls playing at ball that we can see in the sky as the northern lights!” In another account, Knud added, ”A whistling, rustling, crackling sound is made by the souls as they run across the frost-hardened snow of the heavens. If one happens to be out alone at night when the aurora borealis is very visible, and hears the whistling sound, one has only to whistle in return and the lights will come nearer, out of curiosity.” Yupik Eskimos of western Alaska used to “whistle down” an aurora in just this way, according to the research by Alaskan anthropologist Margaret Lantis. But Yupiks who lived on the Nunivak Islands in the Bering Sea said the big celestial soccer games were actually played by walruses kicking around the skull of a human. Sometimes the northern lights brought bad news. The Eyak tribes near Cordova thought they prophesied a violent death. While the Tlingit Indians of Southeast Asia saw them as a sign of an approaching battle. Among Inuits, only the Point Barrow tribe considered the aurora an evil entity, wrote Dorothy ray, a mid-twentieth-century authors of several books on the Eskimo and Athabaskan cultures.


Photo: Portage Lake reflects a wonderful and colorful aurora over Bard Peak.

06 the pictures


Photo: If you have used a computer lately, this might look familiar.

Photo left: A mountain biker turns as the northern lights start their amazing show in Southcentral Alaska.


camera settings.


shutter speed

f/28 or f/4.0

16-20 sec


focal length



manual focus


infinity mode

tripod mounted




auto white balance




Photo: A towering band of a colorful aurora over a braided Mantanuska River on a clear March night.


Photo: With the coming daylight, a multicolor aurora rips through the southwestern sky above the Kenai Peninsula.


07 learning it


07 / learning it

understanding the auroras

History is full of people who thought they understood the aurora borealis. The Makah Indians of the Pacific Northwest region thought the lights were the reflection of fires that people of the Far North lit to boil big pots of whale blubber. That assumption proved to be wrong, but the Makahs could take heart in knowing that Aristotle, Descartes, and Galileo had been wrong about the northern lights too. Just as the distinguished Encyclopaedia Britannica was still wrong as recently as 1910, giving some credence to reports that auroras sometimes touch the ground. Or parents are today when they tell their children that aurora is just sunlight reflecting off the polar ice cap. It isn't. What is it then? The answer has been a long time coming, Aristotle advanced one of the earliest theories some 24 centuries ago, insisting first of all, that the big source of the aurora couldn't possibly be found in the heavens, since the Sun and stars never changed; it had to be found on this side of the Moon. In his Meterologica, Aristotle attributed auroras­— as well as comets, meteors, and most other ephemeral lights in the sky­—to earthly vapors that rise into the upper atmosphere and periodically catch on fire. The earthly vapors weren't completely off the mark though; maybe at least the atmospheric gas was part of the aurora puzzle. But as Candace Savage points out in her 1994 book Aurora, it iss Aristotle's insistence that the heavens never change—a mistake Carl Sagan described as the “most influential error in the history of astronomy”—and managed to confuse natural philosophers for the next 19 centuries.

Photo: In the spring of 2002, this towering aurora was shot over the Seward Highway inPortage. The comet, Ikeya-Zhang was in the sky just to the left of the aurora.

07 / learning it

It ruled out the role of the Sun and stars as agents of space weather and mistook geophysics for astrophysics. And it turned everyone's attention toward Earth (the center of the universe) for all answers. Not until 1572, when Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe noticed the creation a brand-new star in the constellation Cassiopeia (the heavens can change), would academics again seek aurora explanations beyond the moon. But they still had a lot to learn. At the very least, the riddle of the aurora required a understanding of (1) solar physics, (2) the Earth's magnetic field, (3) electrical generators, and (4) neon signs—all of which were well beyond the like of any sixteenth-century encyclopedias. In fact, a Polish astronomer named Copernicus, had only recently advanced his theory that the Sun was the center of the solar system instead of the Earth and he wasn't enjoying much popular support. Even in the seventeenth century, an Italian astronomer who agreed with Copernicus, was arrested, tried, and even forced to publicly declare under threat of life imprisonment, “I, Galileo... swear that I will never again say or even assert that the Sun is the center of the universe and immovable, and that the Earth is not the center and moves.� And the inquisition wasn't over, the Age of Enlightenment hadn't begun, but science would stumble on it. In the 1600s English physician, William Gilbert demonstrated that the Earth is a gigantic magnet. In the 1700s, astronomer Edmond Halley suggested that the northern lights might be influenced by that magnetism, which would help explain why the auroras are most often observed in the polar regions, where the Earth's magnetic-field lines converge.


Photo: A caribou hunter pauses to enjoy the auroral sunset reflecting on the Kobul River, above the Arctic Circle.

Photo: Knick River campsite with the Chugach Mountains in the background lit by a bright moon in October.

Photo left: This sunset aurora was visible from Anchorage's Point Woronzof. Note that at this high latitude, twilight can last as long as two hours after sunset or before sunrise.


A timeline of aurora understanding.

Physician William Gilbert demonstrated that the Earth is a gigantic magnet.



Astronomer Tycho Brahe noticed the creation a brand-new star in the constellation of Cassiopeia, meaning the heavens change.


Candace Savage points out, it's Aristotle's insistence that the heavens never change confuses philosophers.



Astronomer Edmond Halley suggested that the northern lights might be influenced by magnetism.


08 the lime light


08 / the lime light

the photographer's time to shine

The night began on a home computer. Alaskan photographer Daryl Pederson sat down at his desk and logged onto the Internet. From his home in Girdwood, a turn-of-the-century gold mining town that transformed into a turn-of-the-century ski village, about 40 miles southeast of Anchorage, he was suddenly transported far into space. Depending on the website picked from a long list of bookmarked favorites, Pederson could easily examine the Sun. But not in the sense of walking outside and looking up; Pederson could get so much closer than just that. He could pull up a color image of the solar disk, photographed every ten minutes by an observatory in Hawaii, and squint at the number and density of sunspots. He could look for the telltale bundling of the spots that signals a solar flare. He could speculate on its direction: If the flare was positioned just right, it might send a storm of charged particles hurtling toward Earth. The light from the explosion would make the 93-million-mile journey in eight seconds flat. But even then, a strong solar wind racing a million miles an hour would require more than three days to cover the same distance. Just before the aurora was scheduled to arrive, Pederson's habit was to log onto his computer and check the final solar-wind data points relayed to Earth by the satellite stationed about a million miles away. The orbiters could tell him and any other aurora watcher with access to the Internet, the exact speed and density of electrons in the approaching storms about an hour before it reached the ionosphere.

Photo: A corona aurora explodes above the Chugach Mountains.

It could also tell him the directions photographer in Anchorage. ”It's of the Interplanetary Magnetic going to go tonight,” Pederson said. Field (the Sun's magnetic field) that ”It's going to go big.” the charged particles towed with But if an aurora goes big and no one them toward Earth. sees it… A solar-wind speed over 800,000 That's always the big question for miles per hour was so promising, aurora photographers—especially but the IMF's had to be trending around Anchorage, where cloudy south for an aurora to appear. skies could completely conceal a On the dark night of April 6, 2000, spectacular light show. And now it Pederson stared at his computer for was Hall's turn to spring into action. clues. And only two days earlier, From his better vantage near an a ”coronal mass ejection pin” had ocean bluff out in West Anchorage, exploded from the Sun, sending in the photographer and avid aurora a big wave of ionized gas rushing hunter could scout the cloud cover towards Earth at especially high in many different directions. Calvin speed. It was expected to arrive in could see that this was a good night that evening. Pederson rechecked to drive north. the magnetics orientations of the storms, then picked up his phone and called Calvin Hall, his fellow 73

Photo: The Matanuska Glacier shot from the Glenn Highway overlook at three thirty in the morning. In the moonlight and later the twilight, the colors tend to be pastels and have a much wider range than normal.

How to photograph the northern lights.



Find good a location with foreground, middleground, and some background.

Set the self-timer to avoid camera shake and choose an ISO speed.

2 Adjust camera settings including aperature and the manual focus.


4 Review LCD display and zoom in as far as possible and find an area in the sky with extra bright stars.



Turn focus ring on lens to infinity and fine-tune until you have the sharpest focus posibble

Adjust the exposure using the shutter speed and ISO, keeping the aperture fixed, and keep shooting the northern lights in the sky.

6 Choose a shutter speed around 16-20 seconds and then check the results.


09 blue moon


09 / blue moon

what we see out there This was not your grandfather's aurora. This was a wild marriage between the space age and the computer age that had capped our twentieth century and had taken auroral science so far so fast, it was hard to even remember the 1950s—let alone the 1900s, when the modern era began. You can actually track the maturation of auroral physics in a very clear line from the breakthrough research of the Norwegian physicist, Kristian Birkeland in the early 1900s, to the British physicist, Sydney Chapman, in the 1930s and '40s, to a famed Japanese-American physicist called Syun-Ichi Akasofu, during the years 1960s and 1970s. Birkeland was the very first aurora scientist to propose the one unified theory that included all the parts of the auroras puzzle: it was charged particles from the Sun, powerful

forces near the Earth's magnetic field, upper atmospheric gas, and electrical discharge. That's why there were always a big electrical current on the ground associated with a strong aurora, he said and not because of electricity falling from the sky—but rather because the electron streams from the Suns disturbed the Earth's hot magnetic field, causing it to move, and as the magnetic field moved closer to the ground through any new conductor, it generated new electricity. Birkeland's theory only had a few holes in it, which is why the other aurora scientists were not very shy about pointing it out. ”How could these electrons from the Sun ever reach the Earth?” they would ask. ”If all the electrons have a negative charge, wouldn't they repel each other and dissipate?” This was a good point, and Birkeland didn't have a good answer yet.

But Chapman and his colleagues eventually did, in 1933, introducing new principles of astrophysics in the process. It wasn't electrons alone that poured from the Sun, Chapman said. It was extremely hot, ionized gases and (now called ”plasma”), consisting of the free electrons and protons existing together in a very collectively neutral state. It was this ”fourth state of matter” that just allowed some of the larger electrons to all congregate. Scientists today explain it as this way: You heat a solid, it becomes liquid. If you heat a liquid, and it becomes gas. And if you heat a gases at extremely high temperatures, and most the upper atmosphere of the Sun reaches one million degrees centigrade and then it turns to plasma, which accounts for 99 percent of the universe, since all the other stars are generating the plasma too. 82

09 / blue moon

Chapman also discovered the true nature of the magnetosphere which protects the Earth from the destructive power of plasma. The magnetosphere begins near the lower altitude of the ionosphere, some sixty miles above sea level. At that elevation, the Earth's magnetic field is relatively undisturbed and resembles the lobed shape of an apple—just as earlier scientists said it did. But the outer edge of the magnetosphere wages a constant battle against the solar wind, which sculpts it into the shape of a comet's tail millions of miles long. The Swedish physicist, Hannes Alfven, then explained how some of the solar parts are able to enter the ”comet's tail” and power the aurora. Just as some of the river water that flows past a boulder circles back upstream in an eddy, some of the electrons and protons in the solar wind circle back inside the tail of the magnetosphere—where they’re quickly snapped down to Earth by magnetic attraction. Journeying both outside and inside the magnetosphere, the solar electrons cut across magnetic-field lines in a way that generates 1,000 billion watts of upper atmospheric electricity. Aurora-related electrical currents heating the upper atmosphere, in fact, played particular havoc with long-distance radio transmissions during World War II, prompting some of the world’s military powers to learn more about auroras. After the war, Congress established the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks to be a research Arctic radio communications in particular and the auroras in general. Chapman then moved to Fairbanks in 1953 to serve as the institutes first director of science. Four years later, Chapman then encouraged thousands of other physicists around the world to join the International Geophysical Year, working in teams to take pictures and gather voluminous records of the aurora in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. One of the participants was Akasofu, who moved from Japan to Alaska to help make sense of all the data. That same year in 1957, the Russians launched Sputnik, the world's very first satellite.

Photo: Corona auroras can form a focused center point very quickly and then suddenly disappear for the night.

Photo: Although Anchorage was covered in pea-soup fog, the view from Hatcher Pass Road in the Talkneeta Mountains revealed a bright moonlit night.

Older Americans may still recall the wonder of looking overhead that October day and spotting the little Russian space module which was orbiting the Earth's blue sky every ninety-six minutes—though they may never have known that fact, among other mission goals, what Sputnik was doing, ionosphere was sweeping up some aurora-related data about space particles, magnetic-field lines, hot temperatures, and radiation. Just a short while later, America countered by launching its famous Explorer satellite, and the space race was on.

Soon, a U.S. astronaut would walk on the Moon before the end of the next decade. Along the way, U.S. satellites missions would validate much of what Birkeland, and even Alfven had said much earlier on in the century about auroras and their relationship between Earth and sky. And photographs taken from space would validate some of Akasofu's known controversial discoveries too.


Photo left: The Chugach Powder Guide's helicopter returns for a rest after a long day of transporting spring skiers.

Photo left: The Chugach Powder Guide's helicopter returns for a rest after a long day of transporting spring skiers.


10 the red sea


10 / the red sea

when the lights ignite the sky

As a member of a team taking simultaneous ”all-sky” photographs in two jet aircrafts, with one flying over Alaska and the other over New Zealand, Akasofu, along with others, was able to show that the aurora borealis and the aurora australis are essentially just mirrors of each other, bound by the same magnetic-field lines. He showed that the symmetrical ”auroral zone” that physicists had long included in their textbooks was really a lop sided ”auroral oval” around the magnetic North Pole, which explains why northern lights usually appear first on the northern horizon, regardless of latitude. He showed that auroral substorms—the rise and fall of an auroral sequence on any given night—could occur two or three times a night, and that they weren't simply a function of the time of night or the Earth's rotation but of something else, yet to be understood. There's a lot that he still doesn't understand about the northern lights, says Akasofu, who followed Chapman as director of the Geophysical Institute. ”Do not forget that nature is infinitely complicated,” he once wrote. ”Never have an illusion that one will ever have a complete understanding of it.” The nature of this plasma that powers Earth's northern lights needs to be studied much more, Akasofu says. It might one day unlock the mystery of nuclear fusion, providing a safe and inexhaustible form of power. It might tell us how to explore other new worlds, since the universe right now is almost entirely plasma.

Photo: Shot on slide film with a slower shutter speed, this image of a corona aurora exploding in the southwestern sky features a soft blend of multicolor light.

Right now, what we already know about auroras and plasma could possibly tell us whether there's life on other planets. Many planets besides Earth have auroras, including other planets in our own solar system. If we ever find a distant world whose aurora emits the same wavelength of the red orange light that serves as the signature for atomic oxygen, then perhaps we'll find forms associated life.

10 / the red sea

The Iditarod was over. The spring equinox had come and gone. And with daylight prevailing once more, the usual eight-month aurora-viewing season in Alaska was nearly past. And by early April, some people thought it was past. They thought it needed to so be clear and cold for the lights to appear, but of course they had it only half right. Solar winds could occur any month of the year, and it didn't have to be clear for people to feel their power. The five biggest geomagnetic storms of the past half century had spread evenly across the calendar including: February (1958), March (1989), July (1958), August (1972), and December (1980). The northern lights show of March 13 and 14, 1989, were such a powerful example. They blew in as a 10-million-miles-per-hour solar hurricane that painted a blood-red aurora over most the of the Lower 48. The magnetic storm burned up the transformer of a nuclear power plant on the Delaware River and knocked out all the power in the province of the Quebec region. Nothing quite so dramatic was anticipated for the evening of April 6, 2000. Still, power companies all across the northern states were taking precautions. A big solar wind storm had already entered the upper atmosphere, and satellites that monitor the circumpolar auroral oval were showing a huge bulge that sagged as far south as North Dakota. As the world turned, the bulge rotated west toward British Columbia. Over Seattle, with any luck, the weather would be clear and the lights would be prime.

Photo: The center of a flaring corona can


briefly light up the surrounding area.

“do not forget that nature is infinitely complicated...�

Photo: Hatcher Pass Road in the moonlit Talkneeta Mountains, just as the northern lights brighten.



11 yellow sunrise


11 / yellow sunrise

the race against the sun

Up in Anchorage, however, there was no such luck. A low-pressure system had arrived by evening, and the aurora watchers had to look so hard to find any holes in the clouds. Still, there were no holes. Daryl Pederson thought he found one about thirty miles north of town along the Knik River. He'd set up his tripod and pointed his camera at the 4,326-foot Mount Susitna, called the ”Sleeping Lady”, inclining just to the west. With any luck, Daryl thought, maybe a long, shimmering, green curtain might arch from east to west right over her snow covered bed. He turned north and waited. But the lights never came from the north that night. They were already far advanced down to the south and a cloud bank just to the south was right in Pederson's line of vision. He could see auroras shimmering just behind it and got to be higher fast.

Stowing his large gear, Pederson jumped into his red van and began driving up the Old Glenn Highway. By the time he reached the Pioneer Peak, the lights had just begun to explode. He set up his tripod on the side of the road to take pictures as best as he could, but his position was still compromised by clouds. ”Why didn't I go farther north?” he asked himself. There simply just wasn't enough time. Having started the big night farther north than Pederson, Calvin Hall had time to drive up to Willow, about eighty miles north of Anchorage. Calvin set up his camera down a dead-end road beyond the lights of any cabin. Then he began to wait. For a photographer of the northern lights, waiting becomes a way of life. The lights don't just follow a schedule (Internet or no Internet). You have to be patient and you

Photo: A hot air balloon inflates as the northern lights dance along the mountains of the Girwood bowl.

have to persevere—the whole sub zero night long if necessary. Some nights Hall has sat bundled and alert in some empty expanse of snow from dusk until the long daybreak, all to no avail. And then sometimes all of the lights have appeared after he's lost all hope. In the past, just north of Fairbanks, Hall had had a reason to expect a spectacular display. It is an aurora watcher's rule of thumb is that one good night is usually followed by one more. The night before, he had seen a brilliant red aurora over by Fairbanks early in the evening, but the whole a display had dissipated before he could escape the lights of town. The next night he started out at six in the evening and then he drove about thirty miles northeast to a perfect location. He could see the lights from everywhere. But the lights didn't appear early, like they

had just the night before—or even anytime soon. ”It's nothing,” Hall recalls. ”And seven o'clock... eight... nine... ten... eleven... twelve... one... two... just nothing.” Or almost nothing. About two in the morning, he got ”a little bit of these wimpy northern lights.” It was so underwhelming, so discouraging, he nearly drove home right then and there. But he didn't. ”At about three-fifteen—they went nuts. They were so phenomenal! I could see the bands twisting and turning way off into the north west and then the north east, and they were all different displays that I've never seen or dreamed before!”

Photo: Shot on slide film with a slower shutter speed, this image of a corona aurora exploding in the southwestern sky features a soft blend of multicolor light.


when to photograph the northern lights in Alaska.

Brightness level








12 star dust


12 / star dust

a final note from the photographers Growing up in northern Minnesota, I had the pleasure of spending much of my time out in the woods. I saw and did things that most modern Americans don't have the opportunity to see or do. I spent countless hours exploring the woods and the swamps and the lakes for wildlife, fish, rocks, and flowers. If there was water, I was most likely in it. My mom blamed her gray hair on me and always said that I would either grow webbed feet or drown myself! She could never understand how I kept falling through the ice, even at 20 below zero. When I moved out to Alaska in 1983 my explorations continued on a much grander scale. I had new wildlife to learn about and different terrains. I also started carrying a camera. Photography enabled me to show people what I was experiencing. In the late eighties, I started photographing the northern lights. I really didn't have a clue as to what I was doing but through persistence and luck I managed to get a few good shots. Several people told me that if I would enlargen the pictures, they would buy them. Because of this, the northern lights are a major reason I am now a professional photographer and they are what I am best known for. The time spent in the field and the traveling I've done have given me the opportunity to experience many things. Snorkeling with humpback whales and dolphins in Maui. Watching wildlife from wolves, to moose, to grizzly bears. Exploring ice caves in glaciers. Exploring the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, California's redwoods, Yellowstone, Banff, Glacier, and Denali National Parks. Yet of all the beautiful and amazing things I have ever seen, the aurora borealis is the most awe inspiring of all! The movements, the powerfulness, the patterns, and just the nuance of colors—I believe they give a glimpse of what heaven will be like. I hope the images in this book help you share my awe of God's amazing creations!

— Calvin Hall

12 / star dust

The basic premise of photography is putting light on film. Dramatic lighting with vibrant colors, contrast, and motion enhance a photographers ability to create exquisite images. Often occurrences inside nature surpass even the most creative imagination. It's a subject that I have been virtually obsessed with—the northern lights. Several factors lead to the success when photographing the aurora. As in business, location is everything. Living at latitude along the auroral belt will guarantee many chances to capture the most perfect picture. For the last decade, I have lived near Girdwood, Alaska. It is a small, ski resort community along Cook Inlet's Turnagain Arm, thirty-five miles south of Anchorage. It is an amazingly picturesque setting, and one that has minimal interference from city light, enables quick access to a dark surrounding area, and includes a variety of scenic foregrounds. These elements can prove to be so invaluable as the forecasts of auroral events are not always very accurate and activity can increase without any warning. The magnitude of each display varies with the relativeness intensity of solar storming. Although it is generally more active around each equinox, the Sun is capable of unleashing its mighty winds at any time. Preparations for the arrival of these winds have been helped tremendously by Internet sites that post continuously updated information on geomagnetic activity. Lunar cycles also play a role in night photography. The high contrast of the northern lights against the skies changes with each phase of the moon. Long exposure times record these differences as being literally as different as night and day. However, just as moonlight can be a hindrance for viewing, in moderation it can also illuminate a scene, creating a very powerful balance between foreground and sky. After nearly twenty years of observing and photographing the northern lights, I find only a small percentage of sessions qualify as new images for the ”great shot” file. It's the occasional epic show that keeps me chasing scientific aspects aside, the northern lights are purely magical. — Daryl Pederson





The Northern Lights The dark expansive Alaskan skies offer the ultimate viewing stage for the northern lights, also called the aurora borealis, born from solar winds reacting with the earth’s magnetic field. Taking advantage of the highly active solar storms that have danced across the earth’s surface over the past several years and the latest photographic technology—dedicated aurora borealis hunters and veteran Alaska night photographers Calvin Hall and Daryl Pederson patiently endure frigid night in remote northern locations to capture breathtaking images of this spectacular natural phenomenon. The Northern Lights, the result of their passionate work, is filled with stunning photography as well as an informative essay by Ned Rozell about this gift from the sun.

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The Northern Lights: Celestial Performances of the Aurora Borealis  

The Northern Lights: Celestial Performances of the Aurora Borealis  

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