Outdoors & Recreation

The Chase

Written by
Nathan Mitchell

March is one of my favorite months to chase the aurora borealis in Alaska. It seems that right around the change of seasons, the earth becomes susceptible for amazing aurora displays in the arctic region. March 2013 was particularly the case.

On March 15, 2013, sunspot number 1692 was facing the earth, and came alive with a moderate M.1 solar flare. A flare of this size normally does not get me too excited, but this one was different. This solar flare generated a CME (Coronal Mass Ejection). The sun had been quiet for way too long. Could this moderate size flare be the start of solar maximum that scientists said was going to happen? I was not holding my breath. 

As the data from the solar flare came in, all indications showed that the earth was looking down the barrel of a stellar shotgun that had just fired a large, dense plasma cloud directly toward our little blue planet. Scientists said the cloud of solar particles had left the sun at over two million mph. I thought, Holy crap, this could get interesting. As space weather forecasts flooded the internet, it was apparent that some time around March 17th, the polar regions of the earth were going to glow bright with aurora. I could not have been happier. All that needed to happen was for mother nature to clear the sky of the clouds and storms that had been plaguing Southcentral Alaska residents for too long.

 “Come on, no whammies,” I said to myself as I looked at the weather forecast for the night of March 17th. To my surprise the forecast called for cold temperatures and clear skies. “YAHTZEE," I yelled. It was time to get the batteries charged and make sure all the gear was working, from shutter releases to the camera itself. It was also time to call my aurora chasing friends, Mike Swanson and Will Cameron, to tell them the good news and that a road trip was in their future. The aurora chase was about to begin.

March 16th was painful for me. I was so excited that it seemed every chance I had, I checked the computer models to make sure nothing had changed. All models were still forecasting a major aurora storm on the night of March 17th. The weather forecast still called for cold and clear skies for all of Southcentral Alaska. It was now the calm before the storm.

All models were still forecasting a major aurora storm on the night of March 17th. The weather forecast still called for cold and clear skies for all of Southcentral Alaska. It was now the calm before the storm. 

March 17th finally arrived and all the computer models showed that we were still in the direct line of fire from the stellar shotgun blast. The day was a bluebird day with not a cloud in the sky. I was like a kid on Christmas morning. I could not help but have a smile on my face as I loaded up my truck for the road trip. 

I met Mike and Will in the parking lot of Mat-Su Regional Hospital, at the junction of the Glenn and Parks Highways, in between Palmer and Wasilla. They piled their camera gear, arctic gear and enough food in the truck to keep us alive for at least a week. The question then was, where do we go? A discussion evolved with the pros and cons of heading east on the Glenn Highway towards Glennallen, south to the Kenai Peninsula or north towards Cantwell. It did not take long for us to decide we were heading north. 

I was glad that we left with plenty of daylight as I had never been that far north on the Parks Highway. The drive was amazing with Mt. McKinley views that started from Willow all the way to Cantwell. After driving three hours, we arrived at our destination, Cantwell, Alaska. Now, the question was, where do we set up? There were so many promising places with huge views of the sky. We finally settled on a spot just outside of town, at an area known as Summit. The sky was wide open and the scenery was outstanding. Time to set up the cameras and fire off some test shots.

"Corona Burst"

As I jumped out of the truck, the air temperature about took my breath away, so I scrambled for my arctic gear. I had not noticed the gauge in my truck showed the air temperature was ‘a balmy’ -5 F. The sun was still up and I was glad I had put on that extra layer of wool. 

A short time later, the cameras were in place, the settings were dialed in and the waiting game began. I hate waiting. Cell phone service was spotty where we were at, but I was able to still get an occasional signal to check on the numbers. I am not going to lie, I was not impressed with what I was seeing. It appeared the forecasters were off on the arrival time of the solar mass. So there we were, three dudes, thousands of dollars in camera equipment, clear skies, and not a sign of any impact of the CME. As we sat watching the only movie in my truck, Madagascar 3 (it was my child’s movie), I began to get antsy. Could the forecast have been wrong? Could the CME have somehow missed us? Could we be sitting here all night for nothing? I really hate waiting. After about an hour of staring at my phone, praying that each time I would look at it the numbers would jump, signifying the passage of the plasma cloud, it finally happened.

The numbers were huge. The solar wind had jumped from 300 km/s to over 700 km/s. The proton density had jumped to close to 20 prot/cm3 and the Bz went from pointing north to -24 south. This was the first sign that something big was about to happen. I got out of my truck and stared at the northern sky. The sun had set and only a quarter moon was shining behind me. It was peaceful, and I thought, Is this the calm before the storm? As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw the first glow of aurora. A quick photo confirmed that it was indeed aurora but it was so far north and low on the horizon. Not too impressive for the numbers, I thought to myself.  “I hope it gets better,” I said to Mike and Will, who were now out of the truck looking north with me. 

"Kaleidoscope"

I watched the glow in the sky intently and noticed that it was getting closer and closer. I looked behind the initial glow and noticed active dancing aurora low on the horizon. Finally, the glow was overhead, something big was happening. About that time a strong band began to flare to the north. This time it was not low on the horizon. It was high in the sky and moving with green, white and pink bands. The sound of cameras clicking began to fill the air. I did not want to miss a thing. The storm had finally arrived. The time was around 10:00 p.m., and I knew we were in for a long night of shooting aurora borealis.

For the next five hours, I shot well over 1200 photos of the dancing aurora. The show was the most amazing aurora storm I have seen to date. I don’t know how many times I yelled at Mike and Will, “Are you kidding me?!” as the sky danced with red, green, yellow, pink and white aurora. At one point the sky lit up so bright that I could have read a newspaper under the lights of the aurora.

I don’t know how many times I yelled at Mike and Will, “Are you kidding me?!” as the sky danced with red, green, yellow, pink and white aurora.

Finally, the -20 F degree temperature began to take its toll on all of us. How many shots did I really need of this amazing show? I finally caved during a lull in the storm. If we left now, we could possibly still have time to stop a few more times closer to home. As we drove south, both Mike and Will were pouring over their photos. I kept hearing, “You have got to be kidding,” and “That was amazing.” I wanted to see what I had captured, but getting us back home alive would have to be my top priority. We did stop a few times before we arrived back home, but it was just so we could add one more layer of icing to that aurora cake. After bidding farewell to my friends, I thought to myself, I need one more shot. The sun was starting to light up the northeast sky as I watched a bright green band dance over the hospital. I had one more place to go. It was a spot reserved in my mind as one of my “go to” spots. I arrived less than five minutes later. I set my camera up and began to shoot a thin, bright, band of aurora that snaked across the sky. Day break was close as I watched the last remaining aurora become overwhelmed with the rising sun.

"Raining Fire"

As I drove home, I thought to myself, What a night? I had just witnessed the most amazing aurora show I have ever seen. To this day, a part of me wonders if I will ever see an aurora storm of that quality again. I should be happy with the photos I captured, but deep down inside I can’t wait for that next stellar shotgun blast.

No items found.

The Chase

Outdoors & Recreation

Author

Nathan Mitchell

Being raised in Utah allowed me to follow my dream as a fly fishing guide on the famous Green River, located in the north east corner of the state. During my time as a river guide, I was able to witness nature first hand and the beauty that she created. I decided to expand my horizons and moved to Alaska where I instantly fell in love with the raw natural beauty. I am now proud to call Alaska home. It was during a Forensic Photography Class that I made the connection between photographing blood samples that glowed from a chemical being used to illuminate the sample to photographing the northern lights. It was an odd marriage but it taught me the basic concepts to lowlight photography. From that point on an addiction began that has fueled my love of chasing the northern lights.Some say aurora chasers are crazy, I would have to agree. Who else would drive around Alaska in the middle of the night, in sub-zero temperatures, just to be able to photograph and catch a glimpse of the lady called aurora.

March is one of my favorite months to chase the aurora borealis in Alaska. It seems that right around the change of seasons, the earth becomes susceptible for amazing aurora displays in the arctic region. March 2013 was particularly the case.

On March 15, 2013, sunspot number 1692 was facing the earth, and came alive with a moderate M.1 solar flare. A flare of this size normally does not get me too excited, but this one was different. This solar flare generated a CME (Coronal Mass Ejection). The sun had been quiet for way too long. Could this moderate size flare be the start of solar maximum that scientists said was going to happen? I was not holding my breath. 

As the data from the solar flare came in, all indications showed that the earth was looking down the barrel of a stellar shotgun that had just fired a large, dense plasma cloud directly toward our little blue planet. Scientists said the cloud of solar particles had left the sun at over two million mph. I thought, Holy crap, this could get interesting. As space weather forecasts flooded the internet, it was apparent that some time around March 17th, the polar regions of the earth were going to glow bright with aurora. I could not have been happier. All that needed to happen was for mother nature to clear the sky of the clouds and storms that had been plaguing Southcentral Alaska residents for too long.

 “Come on, no whammies,” I said to myself as I looked at the weather forecast for the night of March 17th. To my surprise the forecast called for cold temperatures and clear skies. “YAHTZEE," I yelled. It was time to get the batteries charged and make sure all the gear was working, from shutter releases to the camera itself. It was also time to call my aurora chasing friends, Mike Swanson and Will Cameron, to tell them the good news and that a road trip was in their future. The aurora chase was about to begin.

March 16th was painful for me. I was so excited that it seemed every chance I had, I checked the computer models to make sure nothing had changed. All models were still forecasting a major aurora storm on the night of March 17th. The weather forecast still called for cold and clear skies for all of Southcentral Alaska. It was now the calm before the storm.

All models were still forecasting a major aurora storm on the night of March 17th. The weather forecast still called for cold and clear skies for all of Southcentral Alaska. It was now the calm before the storm. 

March 17th finally arrived and all the computer models showed that we were still in the direct line of fire from the stellar shotgun blast. The day was a bluebird day with not a cloud in the sky. I was like a kid on Christmas morning. I could not help but have a smile on my face as I loaded up my truck for the road trip. 

I met Mike and Will in the parking lot of Mat-Su Regional Hospital, at the junction of the Glenn and Parks Highways, in between Palmer and Wasilla. They piled their camera gear, arctic gear and enough food in the truck to keep us alive for at least a week. The question then was, where do we go? A discussion evolved with the pros and cons of heading east on the Glenn Highway towards Glennallen, south to the Kenai Peninsula or north towards Cantwell. It did not take long for us to decide we were heading north. 

I was glad that we left with plenty of daylight as I had never been that far north on the Parks Highway. The drive was amazing with Mt. McKinley views that started from Willow all the way to Cantwell. After driving three hours, we arrived at our destination, Cantwell, Alaska. Now, the question was, where do we set up? There were so many promising places with huge views of the sky. We finally settled on a spot just outside of town, at an area known as Summit. The sky was wide open and the scenery was outstanding. Time to set up the cameras and fire off some test shots.

"Corona Burst"

As I jumped out of the truck, the air temperature about took my breath away, so I scrambled for my arctic gear. I had not noticed the gauge in my truck showed the air temperature was ‘a balmy’ -5 F. The sun was still up and I was glad I had put on that extra layer of wool. 

A short time later, the cameras were in place, the settings were dialed in and the waiting game began. I hate waiting. Cell phone service was spotty where we were at, but I was able to still get an occasional signal to check on the numbers. I am not going to lie, I was not impressed with what I was seeing. It appeared the forecasters were off on the arrival time of the solar mass. So there we were, three dudes, thousands of dollars in camera equipment, clear skies, and not a sign of any impact of the CME. As we sat watching the only movie in my truck, Madagascar 3 (it was my child’s movie), I began to get antsy. Could the forecast have been wrong? Could the CME have somehow missed us? Could we be sitting here all night for nothing? I really hate waiting. After about an hour of staring at my phone, praying that each time I would look at it the numbers would jump, signifying the passage of the plasma cloud, it finally happened.

The numbers were huge. The solar wind had jumped from 300 km/s to over 700 km/s. The proton density had jumped to close to 20 prot/cm3 and the Bz went from pointing north to -24 south. This was the first sign that something big was about to happen. I got out of my truck and stared at the northern sky. The sun had set and only a quarter moon was shining behind me. It was peaceful, and I thought, Is this the calm before the storm? As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw the first glow of aurora. A quick photo confirmed that it was indeed aurora but it was so far north and low on the horizon. Not too impressive for the numbers, I thought to myself.  “I hope it gets better,” I said to Mike and Will, who were now out of the truck looking north with me. 

"Kaleidoscope"

I watched the glow in the sky intently and noticed that it was getting closer and closer. I looked behind the initial glow and noticed active dancing aurora low on the horizon. Finally, the glow was overhead, something big was happening. About that time a strong band began to flare to the north. This time it was not low on the horizon. It was high in the sky and moving with green, white and pink bands. The sound of cameras clicking began to fill the air. I did not want to miss a thing. The storm had finally arrived. The time was around 10:00 p.m., and I knew we were in for a long night of shooting aurora borealis.

For the next five hours, I shot well over 1200 photos of the dancing aurora. The show was the most amazing aurora storm I have seen to date. I don’t know how many times I yelled at Mike and Will, “Are you kidding me?!” as the sky danced with red, green, yellow, pink and white aurora. At one point the sky lit up so bright that I could have read a newspaper under the lights of the aurora.

I don’t know how many times I yelled at Mike and Will, “Are you kidding me?!” as the sky danced with red, green, yellow, pink and white aurora.

Finally, the -20 F degree temperature began to take its toll on all of us. How many shots did I really need of this amazing show? I finally caved during a lull in the storm. If we left now, we could possibly still have time to stop a few more times closer to home. As we drove south, both Mike and Will were pouring over their photos. I kept hearing, “You have got to be kidding,” and “That was amazing.” I wanted to see what I had captured, but getting us back home alive would have to be my top priority. We did stop a few times before we arrived back home, but it was just so we could add one more layer of icing to that aurora cake. After bidding farewell to my friends, I thought to myself, I need one more shot. The sun was starting to light up the northeast sky as I watched a bright green band dance over the hospital. I had one more place to go. It was a spot reserved in my mind as one of my “go to” spots. I arrived less than five minutes later. I set my camera up and began to shoot a thin, bright, band of aurora that snaked across the sky. Day break was close as I watched the last remaining aurora become overwhelmed with the rising sun.

"Raining Fire"

As I drove home, I thought to myself, What a night? I had just witnessed the most amazing aurora show I have ever seen. To this day, a part of me wonders if I will ever see an aurora storm of that quality again. I should be happy with the photos I captured, but deep down inside I can’t wait for that next stellar shotgun blast.

No items found.

Author

Nathan Mitchell

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