Ok. First off, please do not ask me to try to take a picture of the aurora.This has been the most sought after picture people keep asking me for and I just can’t do it. Not “I won’t do it for the reason that I don’t want to share this event with anyone else”. It’s more like “I’m poor and can’t afford a 1000 dollar camera that has a good enough lens to take a picture of such a mirage of light in the sky”. If you DO want me to get a picture, I’ll definitely take donations through a kickstarter account named “Help buy KC a fancy camera so everyone can get a really, really cool picture of the Aurora Borealis”.
Now that we have that behind us, I’m writing about the Aurora Borealis, if you couldn’t guess already. Otherwise known as the Northern Lights. It’s the single most delightful and peaceful thing I’ve seen while I’ve been up at Prudhoe Bay, which isn’t really saying much considering it’s basically a desolate and dry wasteland of cold and ice. But it is amazing, it is beautiful, and it can even be mesmerizing at points.
A few days ago, I was just getting off work somewhere between 9 and 10 at night. Tired and sweaty from lugging around boxes of food, vacuums and mops for a good majority of the night, I did my usual blundering about. Mostly in the form of eating dinner, watching the last bit of the Sochi Olympics, tweaking IP addresses on the main internet line to force it into accepting a blu ray player as a viable source to get Netflix on. You know, the usual random things I find to fill my time in a place that doesn’t have much for entertainment. Eventually I got tired and rounded up the usual items that I don’t leave in my room all the time. As I put on my jacket, gloves, and beanie, I filled my water bottle to stave off dehydration for another night. I open the door to go outside and lean over the railing of the stairs to check the sky for the Aurora, as was my usual routine. 9 times out of 10 I’m deflated and just shiver my way to my room, wrenching open my door, and going to sleep. But this night was special.
My diligence finally paid off as I stared at this thick line of incandescent greenish yellow light floating in the sky. It ran east to west and back again.The picture to the left is the best visual representation that I could find of what I saw that night. I bundled up and walked about a good ways away from camp, close to the edge of the Dalton Highway. If I stayed closer to the camp, the lights would pollute my vision of the beauty of these dancing twinkles in the sky. As I stood there for a solid 10 minutes trying to breath slowly from my nose instead of my mouth so I didn’t obstruct my view of the lights, I wondered if I’d see anything as cool as this in my lifetime. The answer, undeniably, is yes. I’ll probably go on to see many incredible things. But in that moment, for those precious few minutes, I felt more privileged to be able to see this than almost anything I’ll ever be able to see in my lifetime. It was always a dream of mine to see what was above my head at that very second, ever since I was a shy little boy in elementary school learning about magic lights that dance in the night sky of Alaska. For those few precious minutes, I was that shy, stand-offish little boy seeing twinkling, dancing lights in the sky that I still don’t quite understand. And on that note:
“The Northern Lights are actually the result of collisions between gaseous particles in the Earth’s atmosphere with charged particles released from the sun’s atmosphere. Variations in colour are due to the type of gas particles that are colliding. The most common auroral color, a pale yellowish-green, is produced by oxygen molecules located about 60 miles above the earth. Rare, all-red auroras are produced by high-altitude oxygen, at heights of up to 200 miles. Nitrogen produces blue or purplish-red aurora.” as per northernlightscentre.ca. It’s probably a better explanation of the reactions of charged particles from the sun and earth than I could come up with. So thank you for that, Canada. The picture to the left is the best example I could find that I could subsequently understand. What it didn’t mention was that the south pole has lights, too, though they’re called Aurora Australis. I find it exciting that I’m going to be in Antarctica in October. Maybe I’ll be able to see the southern lights. It’ll be summer there so maybe not. I can always hope, though 🙂
These little facts about the aurora are the ones I found most interesting (in particular the last one. haha.) from another Canadian educational site about the aurora.
- Despite not having a magnetic field, astronomers have noted an aurora-like phenomenon on Venus caused by the reaction between the solar wind and the ions in the planet’s ionosphere.
- Major solar storms can cause power outages, such as the 1989 blackout in Quebec. In March 1989, an explosion on the sun was so powerful it was like thousands of nuclear bombs exploding at the same time. Quebec lost power for 12 hours.
- Astronauts on board the International Space Station are at the same altitude as the auroras and see them from the side.
- Aircraft crews on transpolar flights and astronauts experience higher doses of radiation during periods of intense solar activity.
- Inuit used to fear the northern lights, believing that the phenomenon could decapitate people who travelled at night by dogsled. It was also thought that cutting the sled dogs’ ears provided protection from these attacks.
The Salteaus Indians of eastern Canada and the Kwakiutl and Tlingit of Southeastern Alaska interpreted the northern lights as the the torches held by the hands of dancing human spirits. They thought these spirits were seeking the souls of those who have just died, to lead them over the abyss. A narrow pathway leads across the abyss to the land of brightness and plenty, where disease and pain are no more, and where food of all kinds is already in abundance. They also believed that they could call the Aurora and send messages to the dead through these spirits. The Eskimos who lived on the lower Yukon River believed that the aurora was the dance of animal spirits, especially those of deer, seals, salmon and beluga whales. I’m really interested in the fact about the Tlingit people (pronounced “Tlin-ket”) believing it was spirits that guided the dead across the abyss because I spent some time with the Tlingit tribes in Hoonah, Alaska. They were really nice people that I could really relate to. They treated each other like a big family. With the good, the bad and the dysfunctionally lovable, they really reminded me of my family back home.