Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Last night's aurora from Alaska. This is pretty much what I saw too

There was a strong northwest wind yesterday, sustaining blows over 80km/h for the other side of the island. I haven't heard reports of tress down, although I was nearly hit by an inch thick alder branch as I was walking through the forest to my Taekwondo class. The northwesterlies bring clear and cold weather to Bowen, and for the first time yesterday, I could smell winter on the wind; not the wet blustery winter of the south coast, but the real Canadian winter, frosty and cold. I could smell snow.

These winds turned out to be a blessing because they cleared the skies for a spectacular display of the northern lights last night. North Americans have to be living in a cave not to know that there is unprecedented solar activity happening now, which means auroras far south of their usual latitudes. Last night around midnight I drove up to Hood Point, which faces north into Howe Sound to see what I could see.

As soon as I stepped outside and looked up I could see the green glow in the sky. I knew that it could be a special night. During the 15 drive up to Hood Point, I sneaked glances at the glow which seemed to be intensifying although remaining quite diffuse. Once I arrived at the point, and turned off the car lights, I could see that the whole northern sky from the horizon to about 70 degrees over my head was filled with green light, bright enough to cast a shadow on the ground below me.

For about 15 minutes, nothing much happened. Some spikes developed, and the glow shifted in intensity a little, but otherwise stayed steady. Gradually however, a reddish tinge developed near the top of the glow, which was almost overhead. Simultaneous to that, the light coalesced into spikes rising the length of the sky to meet in a point that was overhead and a little south of me. Blood red patches developed in the east and west and the light started to flicker and pulsate above me. Huge, rapid waves of energy surged through the upper atmosphere, sending chills up and down my spine. The red colour grew and faded in intensity as did the definition. When I left an hour later, the light was diffuse again, but there was already a sharp definition along the bottom of the glow, up above Mount Garibaldi to the north. I had no doubt that curtains would develop later in the night, but by 1:00am I was tired and cold, and afraid that if I didn't start home I would fall asleep and have to drive back along the deer infested roads too groggy to be careful.

We don't often get the auroras this far south, but when we do, I usually see them, and they rarely fail to disappoint. Last night's outburst was the second or third best display I have ever seen, behind a spectacular 1993 display in Ottawa featuring a red whirlpool directly above us, and the multicoloured 90 degree high curtains I saw on a canoe trip near James Bay in 1986. Last night ranks one above a beautiful and subtle display of the auroras I saw at Hecla National park in Manitoba in October 1997 which was of the dancing curtain variety and also topped a display seen from the roof of my apartment building in Vancouver in August 1998, when spikes flashed across the sky like lightning.

The auroras were a global phenomenon in temperate latitudes last night. Did you see them where you are?