Cold Fire

20041114_aurora_zenithLast weekend, I saw my second aurora. The first was about eight years ago while I was driving between cities on the 401. It gets really dark out there so I’m not surprised I saw it then. Last Sunday was more than a little surprise however. I stepped out onto my balcony and noticed what looked like a very unusual cloud formation. You know those really streaky light clouds that sometime appear high in the atmosphere? That’s what I thought I was seeing but for two things. It was past 11 pm and those wispy clouds aren’t visible at night, and the streaks were vertical and not their typically horizontal alignment.

I talked to Jessica on the phone and she told me the news reported a chance of the aurora borealis being visible and it all clicked. I quickly did what I always do when something odd happens: I grabbed my camera. The first thing I noticed after a two second exposure was those wisps were actually green! I was very surprised because no colour was visible to the naked eye. A small group of (real) clouds rolled by and blocked the aurora display for a few moments and interestingly enough, the clouds looked slightly green, being lit from behind.

20041114_aurora_horizonAfter some experimenting, I settled in a five second exposure set to f/2 at 100 ISO. This was the setting used for the image above. I pointed the camera almost straight up, and some of the balconies toward the top of my building are visible. It looked like sheets of cloud falling directly down toward me. I could even detect some movement in the pattern of the lights, and understand why the lights are sometime described as ‘dancing.’

The first time I saw the aurora borealis, I was in a very dark place so the colours were plainly visible to the naked eye. Last week on was on my own balcony with the city lights all around, and the colours were almost completely washed out. Even still, some of the photos I’ve seen were so beautifully saturated with colours, I don’t believe they really look like that. As you can see from my photos here, the green is plainly obvious but it didn’t look nearly the same to my eyes. Still cameras have an advantage in that you can set them to form a single image from light gathered over many seconds.

The next day, I heard on the news the sun experienced a large burst of solar activity late Friday. The sun is far enough away that the stream of particles takes some two days to get to us, resulting in the lovely show I saw Sunday night.

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