My mother and father in law have been to Fairbanks four times, including two very cold winter visits. To our dismay, over twenty nights in Alaska they had yet to see the aurora. Statistically, tourists to the area have a one-in-three chance to see the lights on a clear night. Since the northern lights are often more prevalent around the equinox, they made a late summer trip to town in hopes of seeing them. Even I succumb to ecological fallacy – they must see them soon.
On September 9th a large (M4) class solar flare preceded a long Coronal Mass Ejection (CME). Events such as these send out fast streams of electromagnetic radiation along with protons and electrons that can, upon impacting the earth’s magnetic field spark fantastic auroral displays. The good news was that this one was partially directed toward earth. The weather forecast over the next few days looked like we might have some clear evening skies. The spaceweather and the weather were both looking good.
A couple of nights later we drove out to the White Mountains, the car loaded with blankets for potential late-night viewing. There’s an overlook on US Creek Road about 50 miles out on the Steese Highway that seemed like it would be a great place to watch. It was cloudier than we had hoped, but there was still sky visible.
Finally! After pulling over at the top of a ridge there was a green band stretching across the sky. It was nothing spectacular, but it was aurora, and they saw it. We stayed for a while, watching as the band oscillated in intensity, never really deterring from its path. A few times it was even bright enough to be seen against the moon. Even though it wasn’t the show I was hoping for, the interplay between the aurora and the moonlit clouds was breathtaking.
The display deteriorated around midnight and I don’t pull all-nighters anymore. It was time to drive home. We all packed back into the car and headed west. We didn’t get far though. We could see the display as it erupted across the sky. I pulled over just outside of Chatanika.
It fizzled again. The strong corona, diverging rays overhead, faded into a diffusely green sky. We tried to get home again, this time barely making it 10 miles before needing to make another stop near Cleary summit. This time there was a strong band that lasted about half an hour periodically breaking off into smaller bands. There were occasional short lived coronas and some diffuse pulsating aurora that wasn’t as easy to see.
We made it home shortly before 3 am. A wonderful night and a successful check on a bucket list.