• Catching the late show
    By Stefan Hard
     | March 18,2013

    Stefan Hard / Staff Photo The last gasp of an outbreak of northern lights is seen illuminating the sky over the woods of Washington just after 5 a.m. Sunday.

    Saturday night was a perfect example of how a pattern of disappointment and lowered expectations can lead to a (nearly) missed opportunity.

    I’ve been waiting for about a decade for the northern lights, or aurora borealis, to reappear with force in the skies over Vermont.

    I happened to catch a couple of spectacular displays of aurora borealis in 2001 and 2004, around the time of the last solar maximum, which comes every 11 years and is accompanied by high levels of activity like sunspots, solar flares and coronal mass ejections.

    Sunspots often generate the twisted magnetic fields that, when they snap, unleash coronal mass ejections — clouds of energized particles — from the sun. These CMEs spark intense displays of auroras when their energy arrives in Earth’s upper atmosphere and energize its atoms with the same principles of physics that light up an old black-and-white TV screen. (Allow me a dork moment here to tell you that if you have one of those old televisions, you can plug it in without turning it on, which will faintly energize the screen, and tune it to a nonexistent station in a dark room, and it will visibly display the energy of a strong aurora right there on the screen.)

    On almost any winter night, some auroras are visible near and above the Arctic Circle, in places like Alaska, Labrador and Norway, but we don’t often get treated to them down south, here near the Canadian border.

    As we are now officially entering a solar maximum, my anticipation has been great for at least one or two dazzling displays of northern lights. But, time after time in the past two years, possible auroras predicted for as far south as the contiguous 48 states have failed to materialize, or have taken place above a dense cloud cover, especially in the Northeast.

    Before retiring Saturday night I checked spaceweather.com and saw confirmation that a coronal mass ejection had taken place and the huge cloud of charged particles from the sun was heading directly for Earth at 2 million miles per hour. Cool!

    It was a cold, clear night, and the chances for mid-latitude auroras were high. My excitement, however, quickly dimmed as I looked out the window on the north side of my house at 11 p.m. and saw there was not even the slightest trace of a glow in the sky. Typically, the aurora begins to fire up between 10 p.m. and midnight, with at least a faint greenish-blue band visible low on the northern horizon. I figured this to be another aurora dud.

    Luckily, subconscious bodily signals got me up at 5 a.m. to visit the bathroom and stoke the wood stove. I glanced outside, as I do out of habit, to see what the weather was doing, then took a quick glance at the northern sky. I’ve never seen northern lights last past 2 a.m., and yet, at 5:15 a.m., there was an unearthly glow in the north and beams of white light streaking vertically, fading in and out and changing positions. No way.

    A mad scramble ensued to assemble a camera with a fresh battery, a fast wide-angle lens, something to steady my camera for a time exposure, and more clothes, pretty much in that order.

    I knew any aurora would have to fade quickly at this late hour, and morning twilight could begin diminishing its power. I began shooting out on my deck with two shaky hand-held exposures before properly securing my camera for 25-second exposures at ASA 2500 with a 24mm, f/2.8 lens — remembering not to breathe during the exposures so a cloud of steamy breath wouldn’t drift in front of my lens and ruin the clarity.

    As expected, the aurora faded quickly, and I managed only about a dozen exposures and never had time to set up in another location away from the trees. But the images I got captured more colors than my eyes could detect, and I was happy with the results. However, I spent more than a few minutes kicking myself for not getting up in the middle of the night, when I assume the northern lights display would have been really blazing.

    As it turned out, returning to spaceweather.com several hours later, after more cups of coffee than usual, I learned that the coronal mass ejection did not impact Earth’s magnetosphere until about 4 a.m., so if I had gotten up before then, I wouldn’t have seen a thing and would have remained clueless.

    This particular CME, if it had hit our atmosphere closer to midnight, likely would have been even more spectacular, as the orientation of Earth’s magnetic field at that time of night would have more efficiently opened the door to the CME’s energy.

    Maybe next time, and maybe, for some reason, I’ll be awake, and optimistic.

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