New Age of Aurora Viewing
Wed Dec 27 2017
Back in 2002, I was only three years into being what I considered to be a serious nature photographer. What was that dividing line, you may ask? There were two things that happened that helped me to understand I was getting more serious. One was beginning to truly understand how light affected film, and the other was switching from color negative film to color slide film.
I had only been living in Alaska for three years in 2002, and the experience was overwhelming. So many new sights, new places to explore and photograph, new friends, new work obligations, and a relationship that was in a plateau just before it started its decline. With a demanding day job, I lacked the time and leisure to be able to go out and chase after the aurora borealis, which was putting on some rather vibrant displays because it was the peak of the eleven-year solar cycle. I could only live vicariously through the works of local photographers who had the time and knowledge necessary to go out and capture stunning aurora images. All of those photographers were shooting film. There was no Twitter, no Facebook, and no smart phones.
Aurora viewing had a certain level of popularity at that time, as it has through the centuries. Japanese tourists in particular have been reputed to visit Alaska in the winter time specifically to view the aurora and make love under its magic. The commonly-held belief among the Japanese is that conceiving a child under the aurora will bring good luck. The Nunamiut of the Brooks Range of Alaska believe that if you whistle at the aurora, it will move to your tune. They also tell their children that if you go outside without a hat on, and the aurora is out, it will chop your head off and play with it like a ball. The Tlingit, along with the Kwakiutl and the Salteaus Indians, believe that the aurora represents the spirits of ancestors, while the Yup’ik Eskimos of southwest Alaska believe that the northern lights were dancing animal spirits, particularly deer, seals, salmon and beluga whale.
That fascination had also translated into a photographic fixation for certain photographers in Alaska. Most notably, Todd Salat, who for many years has been a mainstay at the Anchorage Downtown Market & Festival (aka “Saturday Market”) in downtown Anchorage and at the Dimond Mall during the holiday season, was a busy and successful aurora photographer going into the 2002 solar peak. Back then, he, like pretty much all other photographers, was still shooting film. And how did you know the aurora was going to be out back then? Well, there was some raw data to observe and then you had to be out there to observe the good displays. Salat notes, “It used to be that after a good aurora show, mark your calendar for 28 days. That’s how long it takes for the sun to revolve around it’s axis and hopefully the same sunspot/coronal hole would be pointing toward earth (geo-effective) and, once again, would be sending life-giving energy into the aurora.” There was no means of coordinating your efforts based on multiple sources of real-time data.
How different of a world it is now a little more than a solar cycle peak later. Everyone has a digital camera now, with a few die-hards out there capturing the natural world on film. (I, occasionally, will take along my Hasselblad and capture images on Fuji Velvia 120 film.) And then there is the real-time exchange of information available through Twitter and Facebook. Twitter offers several accounts to follow for current and near real-time data, like Aurora Alerts and AuroraNotify. On Facebook, several user groups have sprouted up, such as Aurora Lovers and Aurora Borealis Notifications Group, sharing real time data and the success of a good night of aurora through pictures and stories. And there are countless photographers posting their own updates via Twitter and Facebook. One dedicated aurora hunter has even gone so far as to post suggested locations using Google maps for viewing the aurora in the vicinity of Anchorage, the Mat-Su Valley, and Fairbanks.
The proliferation of the smart phone has had a particular impact. Rather than being chained to a desk or laptop computer to monitor these real-time aurora and weather reports, the smart phone has allowed the intrepid photographer to be out in the field, closer to the locations necessary to capture great aurora images. So long as there is cellular service, which is still quite sketchy in several areas of Alaska -even on the road system – the in-field photographer can react quickly to new individual reports or updates from NOAA. There are also a variety of applications, such as Aurora Pro that offer yet another source of information to supplement the smart phone data access.
But even with all of these new, grand advances in technology, it’s still technology, which means sometimes it goes down.
Following a peak of aurora activity over March 7-9, 2012, then heading into another three days of activity on March 11-14, 2012, the Alaska Geophyisical Institute page that is famous for providing its aurora forecasts simply went down from too much traffic. Charles Deehr is the dedicated man behind those aurora forecasts, having been inspired to create the forecast based on a particularly vivid display he viewed in 1989.
Even with the occasional glitch, the new age of aurora-hunting technology offers more benefits than faults, according to Salat. “A perfect example just happened yesterday. I woke up in my truck camper and saw it was snowing with a forecast for more snow in my area. The space weather websites were predicting active auroras that night because of an incoming solar flare (CME). On my iPhone I viewed dozens of weather reports for every town and city within 300 miles then made a best guess and took off. At 4 am, 200 miles from where I started the day, I finally found a clear patch and had a wonderful aurora experience. Thank you smartphone.”
But even with all of the claims that social media and new technology create social barriers in the real world, among real people, the current aurora craze certainly goes against that common belief. A vivid display in March 2012 over Anchorage provides a good example of this. Fueled by promising aurora forecasts, crowds of people headed up into the hillside above Anchorage, crowding trailhead parking lots and any pullover with a view to the open sky. I, along with several other photographers, headed down the Turnagain Arm to a pullout at the boundary of the Chugach National Forest. After the initial display, the Facebook and Twitter feed went crazy, with people sharing reports from Fairbanks down to the Kenai Peninsula. I saw one Tweet from local progressive radio show host Shannyn Moore, and gave her a call – she was driving up the winding roads of the Anchorage hillside, looking for a spot to view the aurora. When the next show erupted, I abruptly hung up on her and went to photographing. The next day, she recounted the event on her show, The Shannyn Moore Show.
Todd Salat also agrees that the real-time, shared experience, creates an added dimension to the aurora experience. He notes, “Scientists can model the flare and are getting darn good at predicting the actual time of impact (+/-). We now know the minute a geomagnetic substorm is in progress. You can even get alerts emailed or phoned in to you. If you’re sitting warmly in front of a home computer, time to throw on a coat and get your eyes on the sky. If you’re out in the field it’s incredibly fun, educational and almost addictive to monitor a northern lights show while it’s in progress.”
In this brave new world of aurora viewing, people will be able to enjoy and photograph the aurora borealis unlike ever before. I can only hope that the technology that fosters greater opportunity does not outshine the magic of the aurora itself.