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Winter 2005: The Aurora Borealis: Chasing a Natural Beauty

Posted by Deana Weise 10/20/2016 1:12:35 PM

As a young boy, Lyndon Anderson caught his first glimpse of them dancing majestically in the clear night sky near his home in Baldwin, North Dakota. He was awestruck and amazed, but it wasn't until decades later that he became serious about 'chasing' one of North Dakota's regal natural beauties - the aurora borealis, or northern lights.

 

Not only does Anderson chase them, he also captures the beauty of the northern lights for others to enjoy through photographs. He shares his photos with the world via his website at www.prairiejournal.com. Anderson keeps an online journal narrating his experiences associated with each unique and breathtaking photo.

 

"I saw them for the first time as a boy and then once more as a young adult in the early '80s as I was traveling north between Redfield and Aberdeen, South Dakota," says Anderson. He was immediately hooked, but didn't begin actively chasing the northern lights until the late 1990s. "A local radio station would frequently report that there had been a strong show the night before, and I would get frustrated knowing I had missed them, so I began doing website research and watching forecasts." This was met with frustration as well. "I am not a scientist, so much of the information was confusing in the beginning."

 

Finally, in the spring of 2001, you might say that the stars lined up for Anderson, when he accurately predicted and captured his first major show. It was this show that inspired him to begin journaling and posting his photos on a website. "It was absolutely amazing," says Anderson. "It was the first time I had seen parts of the sky actually turn blood red." On the following page is an excerpt out of Anderson's journal for that evening.

 

One of the photos Anderson captured that evening was featured in a New York Times article in mid-April 2001. His photos have been featured in several other publications, including the Bismarck Tribune, as well as national websites such as CNN.com and spaceweather.com. Two of his photos were selected as NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day.

 

The science behind the wonder

The Sun functions on an 11-year solar cycle. Around year 11, or at the peak of that cycle, the northern lights, or aurora borealis, are more frequent, increasing the chance of a viewing. During the peak of this cycle, which occurred in 2001, there is an abundance of sunspots exploding on the Sun's surface releasing charged energy particles. These particles collide with the Earth with great force and are attracted to the geomagnetic North Pole - which is different from the geographic North Pole and is located in northern Canada. An aurora oval exists in the latitudes surrounding the geomagnetic North Pole, and the locations within this aurora have the best chance of viewing the captivating, colorful shows. 

 

The vivid colors of strong storms are intriguing. Anderson says that although green is the most common, red, purple and blue can also be seen during strong storms. "The red colors occur farther up in the atmosphere. Light from the moon and sun (during the hours just after dusk and just before dawn) will cause these to look blue or purple at times." The auroral lights' colors are determined by the spectra of gases in the Earth's atmosphere, and the height at which the most collisions take place. Incoming particles tend to collide with different gases at different heights.

 

The term 'northern' lights may be deceiving. Although the majority of the shows are seen in the northern sky, the lights can be seen in the southern sky during intense storms. "The lights are most commonly viewed in the northern sky since the aurora oval typically is north of North Dakota," says Anderson. "However, when an increased amount of energy released from the Sun causes a strong storm, the aurora oval will move farther south and the lights can be seen in the southern sky." It is rare, but when this occurs the lights can be seen briefly as far south as Texas, Mississippi and Mexico.

 

"Some people assume that during years when the cycle is nearing its low point, such as this year, there is no chance of visible northern lights. This is not true," says Anderson. This year's photos and journal entries for the early morning of May 15 provide proof of this falsity. This storm, occurring during a low point in the cycle, was so strong that the lights were clearly visible in the southern sky. "The next peak in the cycle will be around 2012, but I expect to see dozens of outstanding shows in the meantime."

 

What makes North Dakota unique?

While the northern lights are the strongest in the higher latitudes, such as Alaska, Scandinavia and northern Canada, North Dakota has many advantages and is one of the best places to view them in the lower 48 states.

 

"In my opinion, outside of the higher latitudes, North Dakota is one of the best places to see the northern lights," says Anderson. This is because the geomagnetic North Pole is located in northern Canada, 1,000 miles south of the geographic North Pole, making it 1,000 miles closer to North Dakota. "Locations at the same latitude across the globe in Europe are jealous of North Dakota's ability to view the northern lights. Even though the latitudes are similar, the location of the geomagnetic North Pole puts us at an advantage," says Anderson.

 

North Dakota also has two advantages over the higher latitudes. The state's dry climate creates less humidity and thus less cloud cover. "The shows may be more frequent in Scandinavia, but it has a very moist climate, creating frequent cloud cover, which decreases the visibility of the shows," says Anderson. "Another advantage is that the lights can be viewed any night of the year, unlike Alaska, where the days from mid-April through mid-August are too long to view the lights." Even during the longest day of the year in June, North Dakota still has five to six hours of darkness, from 11 p.m. to around 4 a.m., when the vivid shows can be seen.

 

For Anderson, who views and photographs the northern lights from his father's farm 15 miles north of Bismarck, there is no need to go elsewhere to take in the dazzling shows. "We have very beautiful shows. We have to be more patient since they are not as frequent as in the higher latitudes, but this makes us appreciate them that much more."

 

Advice for 'chasers'

Anderson's best advice to potential chasers is to be proactive and persistent. He insists that those who are serious must do website research and be prepared to lose lots of sleep observing - or chasing. "Websites need to be monitored daily, not weekly. If you find that a storm occurred the night before, chances are you are too late. The lights typically are not visible two nights in a row." 

 

"Since I am not a scientist, I have experienced a lot of trial and error in determining my model for predicting - it is not simple and cannot really be explained. Individuals must learn from experience - and failures - what the best method is for them."

 

Anderson says some people think he is eccentric or somewhat crazy for chasing the lights in the sky, but he anticipates they have never experienced the stunning splendor of the aurora borealis. "It is well worth the sleep and time lost."

 

Bringing the Universe to North Dakota

The University of North Dakota (UND) Department of Space Studies in Grand Forks is doing what it can to bring the Universe to North Dakota. "Prior to a couple years ago, North Dakota had no professional astronomical history. We are working to change that," says Paul Hardersen, an assistant professor in the Department of Space Studies.

 

Hardersen is spearheading an effort to build North Dakota's first professional astronomical observatory. The effort includes a $2.3 million redesign and renovation of UND's current astronomical observatory, located 10 miles west of the university. The mission of the effort is to enhance the quality of life in North Dakota through greater research, educational, and recreational opportunities. Plans call for the construction of a one-meter class observatory that will serve professionals and the public across the entire Upper Midwest region. The observatory could be operational as early as winter 2009, depending on funding.

 

UND's observatory currently includes an 18-inch Newtonian telescope housed in a traditional astronomical dome and a separate Internet telescope housed in a roll-off roof. Initially built in 1996, the Internet telescope became operational this year after Space Studies spent $20,000 in UND infrastructure improvement funds. Improvements included elevating the roll-off roof, purchasing two new computers and commercial telescope control software, installing a dedicated T1 network line to the observatory, and improved roof and power controls. 

 

Since October, an undergraduate observational astronomy class at UND has received training on the Internet telescope and is using it to conduct homework and project assignments. By spring, these students and faculty will also be conducting various research projects.

 

The Northern Skies Astronomical Society, an amateur astronomy club based in Grand Forks, uses the observatory for weekly star parties during the months of May through October. The group also hosts two annual statewide events, the North Dakota Star Party, held at the Cross Ranch State Park 30 miles north of Bismarck, and the Badlands Star Party, held in the north unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. "These events are open and welcome to the public as well as amateur astronomers. They are very family-oriented events," says Dean Smith, Northern Skies president. He encourages everyone to mark their calendars for the 2006 North Dakota Star Party on June 23 and the 2006 Badlands Star Party on August 18.

 

Smith and Hardersen agree that North Dakota's latitude and sparse population are what make it attractive for viewing both the northern lights as well as star gazing. "You don't have to travel far to find dark skies," says Smith.

 

For more information on the Northern Skies Astronomical Society, visit www.und.edu/org/nsas. For more information on the UND Observatory effort, contact Hardersen at 701-777-4896.

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