The amazing northern lights


The aurora swirls overhead in April 2011.
Photo by Warren Gammel.

By Julie Stricker

This story was published in the November 2012 Alaska Magazine.

The temperature may be hovering at 30 below zero, but the only forecast Fairbanks photographer Ronn Murray is interested in concerns what's happening in the sky, far above the clouds. And tonight, the forecast is promising.

He puts on his eighth layer of clothing, grabs his camera gear and heads out as far from the city lights as he can get. When he gets to a lonely hilltop in the Chatanika Valley, he sets up his tripod and waits for the show to begin, flexing his fingers in the frigid air.

Soon, a neon green ribbon arches across the sky. It begins to wave as if a gentle breeze is blowing. More ribbons trace the sky, forming an emerald curtain that spans the horizon, rippling and swirling with pink and violet strands fringing the bottom. The colors form a halo overhead, dimming and brightening as they dance.

A slight breeze rustles through the brush, but it's hard to tell whether the sound is tied to the Earth or coming from the lights overhead.

Murray is entranced, the cold forgotten. He watches the lights turn a deep red and tries to capture the color and movement in a still photograph. After awhile, he puts the camera down and just watches the show.

"It's a moving and spiritual experience," he said, noting he's spent between 200 and 300 hours watching the aurora. "It is magical. There's nothing like it."

The aurora borealis, or northern lights, have captured man's imagination since ancient times. The name comes from Aurora, the Roman goddess of dawn, and borealis, the Greek name for the northern wind.

Some Eskimo legends explained the lights as the torches of spirits in the sky as they led the souls of those who recently died to a land of light and plenty. The spirits sometimes communicated with earthbound people through a whistling or crackling sound when the lights were overhead. Some say they can call the aurora by whistling, but in Lapland, whistling or mocking the aurora could bring harm.

In more recent years, scientists have started to unlock the secrets behind the lights.

The aurora originates when storms on the sun send streams of charged particles, the solar wind, hurtling through space. The Earth's magnetic field directs the particles around the North and South Poles (where they're called aurora australis.) In the upper atmosphere, the electrons encounter oxygen and nitrogen atoms, lighting them up like a neon sign 60 to 200 miles above the Earth's surface.

The aurora's colors come from the kind of atom struck and its altitude. Green and red, the most common colors, comes from oxygen atoms high in the atmosphere. Stronger solar storms sometimes reach deeper into the atmosphere, striking nitrogen atoms which result in a blue or violet display.

While the aurora is most commonly seen in a oval belt centered on the magnetic poles, strong solar storms can expand the belt, lighting up the skies as far south as Mexico. Strong storms can also damage satellites, electric grids and navigation equipment. Science aside, for most people seeing the aurora is a lifelong dream.

In Interior Alaska, the northern lights are visible about 200 nights a year between August and late April. (In the summer months, Alaska's midnight sun outshines everything else in the sky.)

If there's a hot spot for aurora-watchers, it's Chena Hot Springs Resort. The resort, located 60 miles northeast of Fairbanks at the end of a paved road, attracts skywatchers from all over the world.

The 440-acre resort is nestled in a valley far from city lights. The natural hot springs have attracted visitors for more than a century and the waters have been compared to famous spas in Europe. Today, the resort also boasts an indoor pool, hot tubs, an outdoor rock lake, an ice carving museum and innovative geothermal power plant that heats the resort's facilities. The springs also heat greenhouses that grow produce year-round, which is featured in the resort's dining room. Cross-country skiing and sled dog rides are also offered. But the aurora borealis is the main attraction during the resort's busy winter season.

On most winter nights, dozens of photographers set up their tripods on the resort's long runway. Guests can climb to the "Aurorium," a cabin on the bluff overlooking the resort. They can also opt for a snowcoach tour, which takes guests to a nearby mountaintop with sweeping 50-mile views and a big heated yurt. The resort has cold-weather gear available for rent.

"It's everybody's dream. People will just stand out there, tears flowing down their faces and just oohing and ahhing," says Diane Carrio, group sales and special events manager. "It's just that powerful."

The Japanese flock to Fairbanks every winter, taking advantage of direct flights from Japan Airlines. Many of them head out to Chena Hot Springs, which has signs in Japanese as well as Japanese-speaking employees. Other visitors come from other Asian countries, Russia, Europe and from every state in the Lower 48.

"We're pretty diverse here," Carrio said. "People come from all over."

There are no guarantees the lights will be out on any given night, dependent on cloud cover, solar activity and "a bit of luck," Carrio said. If they are out, the resort does its best to make sure guests can focus on the skies.

The grow lights in the geothermically heated greenhouses are red and lights around the resort are carefully positioned to cause as little disturbance to the night as possible. The resort posts the aurora forecast put out by the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Until recently, the Geophysical Institute's forecast was the best indicator of whether a light show was likely on any given night. Now, with new satellites tracking the behavior of the sun and webcams from around the polar regions aimed at the sky, aurora watchers can get a good idea two or three days ahead of time, or even hour to hour, if the lights are likely to dance overhead. Groups on Facebook and Twitter also send out alerts when the lights are out.

"There's a lot of factors going into it and you become sort of an astro-geek," Murray, the photographer, said. He frequently checks the website, which forecasts the solar flares and geomagnetic storms that can spark auroral displays. If the forecast is good, he'll pile on the layers and head out.

"If it's going to be good, you don't wait for it, you just go," Murray said. "If you wait until the lights come out, you might miss the best show."

He advises people traveling to Alaska to see the aurora to dress warmly and in layers. If they plan to travel any distance out of town, he recommends they go with a group or hire a guide. Information on guides may be available from the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau and some local hotels.

Solar activity occurs in an 11-year cycle, which is reaching its peak this winter. The winter of 2011-2012 was phenomenal, Murray said. He is already planning his photo shoots for the upcoming winter.

"It's an obsession," he said.