Photographing the elusive aurora
Text by Michael Engelhard
Photos by Lindsay Kaye Ohlert
The explorer and naturalist John Muir ended his seminal Travels in Alaska with a fireworks account of the most fleeting and sublime of all atmospheric phenomena, the visual equivalent of piano etudes. After he’d bedded down for the night on boulders near Glacier Bay’s Grand Pacific Glacier on his 1890 journey, “across the sparkling bay, magnificent upright bars of light in bright prismatic colors suddenly appeared, marching swiftly in close succession along the northern horizon from west to east as if in diligent haste…” Days later, in Muir Inlet, he witnessed another, monochromatic aurora, a “silver bow…so brilliant, so fine and solid and homogenous in every part, I fancy that if all the stars were raked together into one windrow, fused and welded and run through some celestial rolling-mill, all would be required to make this one glowing white colossal bridge.”
Prose depicting the ghostly veils, like their pulsing, quickly turns purple. Even accomplished scribes find that words don’t do the spectacle justice. Unlike clouds, auroras seldom suggest concrete forms. In a letter to a botanist pal, Muir confessed his inability to translate such spectral delights into language. Luckily, the then-budding discipline of photography came to his aid. One January night in 1892, the German astronomer-physicist Martin Brendel in Norway took the first northern lights photograph, though it showed scarcely more than a bright smear.
Despite Muir’s self-professed limitations, Glacier Bay and the Inside Passage became tourist attractions due to his flair and enthusiasm. And, with Stonehenge or Venice, the skies’ ornate flooding gained a reputation among “lifetime essentials” topping world travelers’ and photographers’ bucket lists. Its elusiveness, like a snow leopard’s, simply adds to the allure.
In 2017, National Geographic designated Fairbanks the best place in the United States to observe and photograph flares heave and billow, because of the town’s proximity to an international airport and to the Arctic Circle, about 200 road miles to the north. Alaskan auroras are commonly seen between 60° and 70° latitude, and Fairbanks lies a whisker’s length from the “Auroral Oval,” the ring-shaped zone over the pole where Earth’s magnetic lines bundle and the lights ripple most frequently, most breathtakingly. In addition, Fairbanks winters are dry and cloudless, especially in February. Spring is milder but nights wane rapidly. The perfect winter window is from 11:30 p.m. to 3:30 a.m., with lights peaking halfway through. Don’t go to bed after one neon sky-burst—several, an hour or two apart, are not unusual. And try to stay out of people’s backyards.
The University of Alaska’s Geophysical Institute, one of the world’s leading northern lights research facilities, issues a 28-day aurora forecast rating the strength and width of the auroral belt as well as listing communities and the direction in which this manifestation of solar eruptions will be visible. The Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce real-time Aurora Tracker combines Geophysical Institute data with weather forecasts and information about daylight length for the popular viewing spots Chena Lakes, Chena Hot Springs Road, Cleary Summit, Murphy Dome, and Coldfoot. Depending on the intensity of aurora-producing sunspots, the lights can oscillate as far south as Michigan, Minnesota, the Dakotas, Indiana, or Ohio, and in active years, Texas.
Light pollution envelops our cities, and downtown Fairbanks is no exception. To escape the electric grid’s blight, outfitters organize sky gazing ventures to Coldfoot and Bettles outside Gates of the Arctic National Park, and into Denali National Park between late August and mid-April. Others own lodges on the darker fringe of town, like Borealis Basecamp, which accommodates overnighters in expedition-grade, cozy fiberglass domes.
Most tourists plan their trips long in advance, and despite the most refined forecasts, scrying the swashbuckling beams remains a bit of a gamble—hardcore chasers personify “Lady Aurora,” calling her beauty fickle. Some operators guarantee booked tours will run when there’s a 90% chance of auroras, leave the decision up to guests with a 50% chance, and cancel all reservations at a 10% or lesser likelihood. Professional photographers often accompany tours, which then become workshops.
Conscientious company owners give groups a noon update for the trip on which they’ve secured a seat, briefing them on current Earth and space weather and deciding if the tour will depart. Guests only pay when it’s a “go,” and past outings to Turnagain Arm and the Chugach Mountains have featured hot drinks, s’mores, “flashlight painting,” and other astrophotography to make up for times when trips leave but auroras do not appear.
The Olympia, Washington-based photographer Kevin McNeal, one of many professionals on the aurora circuit, prefers Fairbanks to remote northern Norway. Its roads in winter are safer, and it’s easier there to get around. McNeal belongs to a network of nighttime and astronomy buffs who share tips about anything from lodging and prime shooting locations to equipment and camera settings through online forums.
Clothing that would have pleased Amundsen—earflap hat, mittens, neck gaiter, insulated boots, 15 layers terminating in windproof coat and pants, and chemical hand and foot warmers for those who value their digits—is essential for an interior Alaska aurora watching spree. Add sundry gizmos to this if you’re serious and want world-class pictures: kneepads, a logbook, tripod, battery chargers, wide-angle lenses, digital or film camera bodies (weathersealed), a remote control or cable release. Even without travel, the costs can approach those of an Inside Passage cruise. Taking an aurora photo is easy, the astronomer Dennis Mammana reminds us, but taking a good one is difficult. To this night sky-shooter, who’s traveled for five decades at least once or twice annually from California’s desert to catch auroras, part of their pull is that no two are ever alike. He scouts locations before the lightshow begins, looking for attractive foregrounds for his photos. Keeping up while auroras phosphoresce across one’s field of vision is a challenge, especially in deep snow. “It’s pretty tiring, since I’m running as fast as the lights,” Mammana says. Snapping a winner from the Steese Highway’s white centerline, he once barely dodged two 18-wheelers. “Yeah, but he got the shot,” he thinks his tombstone will read.
The camera’s eye, of greater photosensitivity than a human’s, with long exposure times and Photoshop-boosts, paints colors and shapes we otherwise cannot perceive. “Deep sky” auroras, visible to the lens but not to us, thrill photographers when, after long exposure, they manifest in pixels as if in a chemical bath. The images of side-by-side observers can vary greatly, according to their style and camera settings. For many pilgrims, technology elevates the moment, or at least fixes it as tangible memorabilia. They seek professional portraits of themselves posing with the lights. Shots pairing the pale fire with a comet, meteorites, the moon, water reflections, unusual cloud formations, or rockets launched from the Poker Flat Research Range also are trophies.
In 2017, the faithful were rewarded with STEVE, a unique, almost vertical magenta band with green accents, which can occur at lower latitudes than normal auroras. (STEVE, if you must know, stands for “Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement.”) A group of western Canadian aurora watchers first informed scientists of the phenomenon’s existence. Less grand than other auroras, STEVE still counts as a coup, for its rarity and for the insights into Earth’s magnetic field that it allows.
Pictures indeed can say more than a thousand words, yet even the best merely hint at auroras’ dynamics: the build-up from a smooth, static arc low on the horizon, to rioting ribbons and drapery, overhead climaxing crescendos (“coronas”), and the fade-out as faintly luminous clouds. It’s as if Wagner were conducting the Valkyries’ ride with a laser baton. The Fairbanks cartoonist Jamie Smith, of Nuggets comic strips fame, aptly expressed the motion with a single frame. In “The Homesick Alaskan,” an overdressed guy on his back stares longingly at the hem of a curtain swayed by a swamp cooler’s fan.
Equally obsessed, Zaira Daurity has answered the lights’ call since the age of four. The six-year-old from North Pole now uses her mother’s handed-down manual camera, no longer forgetting to don snow pants when auroras start to dance. Zaira created her own logo and sells her work at booths during local events. Does her passion spring from nature or nurture? On one aurora hunt, Zaira’s mother, Jennifer, drove backwards for about 20 minutes, because there was no place for turning the car around. She has fallen into an animal den. On another excursion, her tripod broke in subzero temperatures—she duct-taped it back together. “Aurora hangovers” are an accepted tradeoff for this photo mom. “Being up all night, especially for multiple nights in a row, can take a toll on the body,” she says.
Certain sights shortcut to our brain’s pre-verbal, emotional center, that almond-size bit in our temporal lobe, and novices succumb to fits of what Muir called “auroral excitement” when anticipating or glimpsing this silken shine, unrivaled in nature. Bioluminescence in curlers breaking on shore does not nearly come close. If campfires are Stone Age TV, auroras are Ice Age IMAX. Many first-time visitors wax childlike or mystical in the witchy cosmic presence, and a few extend their stay spontaneously. The co-owner of Bettles Lodge, Eric Fox, who shuttles aurora tourists to a warming-cabin at Float Plane Lake, sees this often: “Some dance, sing, laugh, and cry, all at the same time.”
Even residents or old pros never harden to the splendor in Fairbanks backyards. When I lived in a cabin in the muskeg outside of town, before the days of the Internet and smart aurora software, my neighbor, a nightshift Zamboni driver at the Big Dipper Ice Arena, had standing orders to wake me whenever he spotted the lights on his way home from work. Choice bed and breakfasts provide that service for eager winter guests.
Aurora tourism’s economic benefits are hard to separate from those of other winter attractions; hot springs, ice-sculpting festivals, skiing, ice fishing, snowmachining, and mushing also excite lovers of extreme climates. The former “off season” is growing in popularity. Ask Me About Winter, a button worn by visitor-center summer staff proudly prompts. Many southerners comply, giddy with the knowledge that they won’t have to endure what Alaskans must. Winter’s devotees, more diverse by nationality, stay longer and spend more money in town than their summer counterparts, which often only stop over en route to national parks.
Independent domestic travelers as well as tour groups from China, Australia, India, and Europe crave Alaskan auroras. Forty percent of autumn or winter foreign tourists come from Japan and most of these flock to Fairbanks. Contrary to a widely held belief, the Japanese do not think children conceived sub-aurorally will lead blessed lives—that urban legend arose from the TV show Northern Exposure, which spread similar fictions that had Alaskans in stitches.
For millennia, the heavenly pageant provoked speculation. You can coax it closer by whistling, it’s said. At least one myth has been verified. Radio-static crackling or hissing during the most dramatic displays was long dismissed as a fancy. However, on clear, crisp nights after sunny days, cold bottom or “inversion” air layers trap negative electrical charges in the layer below and positive ones in a slightly warmer layer above. When geomagnetic storms bombard Earth’s atmosphere, the electrons audibly jump, like sparks from hand to doorknob.
All in all, the odds of capturing the celestial wonder on film or in pixels, like other odds in the state, are excellent: about 90% for primetime, multi-day sojourns near Fairbanks. “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop,” the maven of wild landscape imagery Ansel Adams wrote. Bagging that many in two days under subarctic skies is not unheard of.
Whether seen from open-air hot tubs or mountaintops, a dirt lot or a wilderness lodge, the wee hours’ razzmatazz is indelible, more so for those who behold it just once in a lifetime. They’ll rank this blaze on the planet’s crown prime among cherished memories, tending it as a beacon flame.
A former tenant in six Fairbanks cabins, Michael Engelhard has walked driveways in slippers, frost-nipping his nose while seeking optimal northern lights vantages.
When Delta Junction teacher Lindsay Kaye Ohlert isn’t in the classroom, she is out capturing Alaska’s beauty. More of her work can be found at frostnip.smugmug.com.