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 it is, these lights serve as a reminder of the many forces at work that keep life on earth safe from the radiation and high-energy particles the sun blasts our way.
I was lucky enough to see these lights in a rather "weak" display back in July near Paradise, MI. (Fitting name!) Honestly, they looked like your standard run-of-the-mill light pollution on the horizon. A white-ish glow. However, the difference was they were moving. On a hunch, I pulled the car over and set the camera up. What I saw on the back screen would change me life forever. There they were - the greens, yellows, and purples of the Northern Lights! Not only were the colors there, but another phenomenon was visible - a Steve Steves are actually not Auroras, and these typically happen in the lower latitudes. The Alberta Aurora Chasers were the first to observe and document this, and as such gained the naming rights, calling it a Steve, as a nod to the movie "Over the Hedge". The science world has since gave it a backronym - Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement. We are only now beginning to unravel the mystery surrounding what a Steve actually is. More on this topic can be found here:
Long story short, as if I didn't need more subjects to be obsessed with, I was hooked on the Aurora. One of the perks about living in the Midwest is the relatively ease of access to witnessing the Northern Lights. Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota lie in an area where the Auroral arc tends to dip down, allowing these upper Midwestern states to view these lights at relatively low 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.
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 being in a minimum.
There are several other data points to look 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 K-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 see the Aurora. Back to the point made about location above. 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. So when you hear someone refer to the "Bz going south", this is a good thing for those hoping to see the lights dance. In the image above, the KP index that night was a 3 and they were still visible from the Upper Peninsula. Once again showing how Michigan's location is quite special for us in the Continental U.S., as 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 might want to book a trip to go further north. The lower latitudes would need a much stronger geomagnetic storm to experience the overhead lights. It has happened before, but its much rarer.
All this leads back to the fact on Jan 2nd, 2019, a G1 Geomagnetic storm watch was issued by NOAA. Now mind you, I have missed all the prior ones, either by being out of town working, or the weather was cruddy. I checked the weather forecast for Marquette, and it was showed sunny. There was no way I was going to miss this opportunity! In typical Midwest fashion, though, that forecast changed an hour later to cloudy. I would spend 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, and getting different forecasts from all of them, I just decided to take the chance. I threw my gear in a bag and head north.
Six hours to paradise! (Chicago to Marquette)
I arrived Thursday night with plans to shoot landscapes and a sunrise for Friday, and then 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 the sunrise. I was camped out watching the stars fade, when I rubbed my eye and a contact fell out. Straight into the sand. Now here is something I never planned for. Now I would have to drive 26 miles back to the hotel in hopes that I brought spares. I wan't going to miss that sunrise though. Half blind or not! And boy, did it not disappoint! Even through one eye, the colors were amazing. I'm glad these turned out and were 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 would't 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.
The back track to the hotel cost me an hour or two of "lost" time, as I planned on heading straight to Munising, MI after the sunrise to catch the waterfall. Like most things in life, things happen for a reason. The reason behind this incident would be the chance of running into some awesome locals on Munising Falls, who would then show me around to some 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 and setup for the lights. 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.
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. Was treated to an equally as beautiful sunset. Mother nature is the best artist!
Now was the moment I've been waiting for. Will the lights make a showing or not? I checked the Aurora ap, 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.
Around 7:30pm, as the last shreds of light faded, I was taking a few test shots, and on the back of the camera - there they were! Faint, but the lights were there! I jumped for joy! It was going to happen! As the darkness grew, so did the intensity. I eventually could see the white-ish arch on the horizon. It was absolutely incredible. Even though there were still passing clouds, I was absolutely beyond the moon in happiness.
The peak of the display would happen about 10:30-11PM EST. I would only capture 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 would actually SEE the greenish hue of the lights and the actual curtains of light dance. (The show form 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 really nothing that can compare to the absolute beauty of the forces of the universe at work. Nothing.
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, its only amplified ten-fold now, since, well... I almost didn't go. LOL!
Thanks for the show, mother nature! Here's to hoping for more chasing adventures to come!