Capturing the spirit in the sky
[by Nick Jans]
A SHIMMER OF LIGHT FLICKERS OVER THE KOBUK RIVER AND THE CURVE OF THE BORNITE HILLS. Then another. As I gaze eastward, yellow-white tongues of fire rise from the horizon, accelerate in pulsing curtains that blaze overhead, shred and vanish, then form again. I watch from inside my Ambler house, biding my time as the auroral storm builds. When a green, swirling pattern edged by luminous pink explodes silently overhead, I grab camera, lens, and tripod where they stand ready, toss on jacket, hat, and gloves, and hustle out into the frost-edged Arctic night.
“The aurora borealis embodies the mystical, careless grandeur of the Great Land.”
I work quickly, setting up my first sequence of shots. Each multi-second exposure will depend on a combination of experience, electronic alchemy, and chance. I try to anticipate an especially bright burst or a dynamic ow before I start the timer, step back, and wait for the first click of the opening shutter, then the second of it closing; but there’s no telling what the lights might do within that third of a minute. During short lulls in the action, I riffle through exposures to see what I’m getting, and tinker with composition, exposure time, and maybe switch lenses. After a series from one spot, I shift to another a few yards away; then try another angle. After two hours outside, I move inside to an upstairs window. Shooting through glass, no matter how clean, isn’t ideal, but it’s the only way to frame a certain shot. Finally, I head outside once more, but the lights are fading. One a.m.—time to call it a night.
The aurora borealis embodies the mystical, careless grandeur of the Great Land. Whenever they appear, even lifelong Alaskans stop what they’re doing and look up open-mouthed, as people have for millennia. And well they should. At full intensity, these celestial light shows put human reworks to shame—random, rippling curtains and prismatic eruptions a hundred or more miles high and sometimes thousands long, moving at dazzling speed. The traditional Inupiat believed the lights were the souls of the dead, playing a celestial, soccer-like game with a severed human head. To this day, village kids dare each other and whistle in the night to tease the light spirits; then run, freaked out and laughing when they seem to dive closer.
Visitors to Alaska are often even more enthralled by the aurora’s mystery. Many rank just seeing the lights as a bucket-list item; others aim a step farther, hoping to capture their essence with a camera. Both goals are totally doable, regardless of age or ability. Success depends on knowing where, when, and how to maximize chances; a blend of persistence and luck; and understanding something about your quarry.
I could geek out on lights science, but let’s keep to basics. The aurora borealis are born of immense blasts of magnetically charged plasma streaming from storms (sunspots) on the roiling surface of the sun. Known as solar winds, these torrents of invisible energy, hurtling toward earth at a million-plus miles per hour, would irradiate our planet into a lifeless hunk of stone. But fractions of a second from impact, they’re deflected into space by the earth’s magnetic field.
If the magnetic polarity of incoming particles and the earth’s match, there are no fireworks. But when the two fields oppose each other (they’re constantly warping and switching), negatively charged electrons stream along looping conduits to the planet’s poles. There they accelerate earthward in waves, bombarding the ionosphere. Oxygen atoms jostled by these particles glow shades of white and green; nitrogen, deeper in the atmosphere, radiates pink, even red. Many millions of these atoms—each releasing a minuscule burst of electricity, and together creating a gigantic electrical storm—result in the stunning visual displays we know as the aurora.
When an especially strong wave of electrons cascades into the upper atmosphere, the lights pulse in spectacular displays. Other times, the plasma flow is weaker, and the lights are more diffused, or invisible. But whether seen or not, jaw-dropping or fleeting, the lights are a year-round phenomenon.
Auroral displays are far more predictable than one might expect. In fact, scientists forecast their ebb and flow, which is linked to the 11-year cycle of the solar storms that spawn them, and to a smaller 27-day rhythm that corresponds to a single rotation of the sun. The University of Alaska Geophysical Institute’s online auroral forecasts (auroraforecast.gi.alaska.edu) make prognostications up to 28 days ahead, based on that solar rotation. Naturally, choose dates with peak displays, and be aware that a forecast, while much more reliable than one for weather, is never a guarantee.
Keep in mind, too, that you need clear night skies with the least possible amount of competing light. Scratch May through August, due to Alaska’s sunlit summer nights; bright lunar phases should be avoided as well. Mid-September through October and mid-March through April give you the best chance of avoiding the deepest cold. The autumn slot is warmer, but the spring slot typically offers more stable, clearer skies, plus a better chance of photogenic on-the-ground snow.
As far as locations go, aim for central Alaska, with Fairbanks south to Denali Park as a rough epicenter. Stay away from the foggy and cloudy coast. Heading farther north won’t get you stronger lights. If your heart is set on viewing above the Arctic Circle, try the village of Wiseman, just off the Dalton Highway.
If photography is your goal, you’ll need a camera with timed exposure capabilities, a stable tripod, and wide angle lenses. Though I experiment freely, the majority of my successful lights images are shot between 15 and 50 mm and include carefully chosen land-bound elements—trees, tundra, cabins, mountains—that define and give scale to the aurora and create a composition. My exposures range between 10 and 20 seconds (longer will result in star blur), and I usually set my ISO between 100 and 400 for optimal quality. Pick higher ground with an east-west exposure, and steer clear of manmade light sources.
Of course, weather, impossible to foretell more than a few days out, is an x-factor that may throw a wrench into the best-laid plans. Try to be flexible, have other activities planned, and go with the flow. May the light spirits swoop down and notice you, standing small beneath the sky.
Nick Jans is a longtime contributing editor to Alaska and author of the award-winning memoir The Giant’s Hand, available from nickjans.com.