It is well before dawn on my fourth day in Alaska for PolarTREC orientation and I am still resisting the time change. I'm groggy by 5:30PM, asleep by 8:00, and wide awake around 3:00AM, when the first thing I do is peek through the blackout shades (which I firmly shut at night because I go to bed before it gets dark) to see if the sky is dancing with northern lights. No luck yet. Turning away from the sky lit only with Fairbanks' light pollution, I decided to learn a little more about this phenomena that I so badly want to witness. I'm working on developing a list of questions that I would like answered – are there any others you'd like to add?
The light on Healy’s jackstaff illuminates swirling snow with green aurora as a backdrop. Photo by Bill Schmoker, PolarTREC 2015.
- What causes the northern lights? I feel like it has something to do with solar flares, but I must confess I don't know exactly what that means. (Follow up question: so is the sun just flaring all the time?)
- Why are there different colors in the aurora?
- What limits the range of locations where northern lights can be seen?
- What did people think caused the aurora before the science was understood?
- Would it really be worth it to rent a car, get up at 3:00 in the morning (OK, I already admitted that I am doing that anyway), drag myself out into the freezing cold darkness of Fairbanks, and try to drive far enough out of town to escape the city lights and see the vastness of the Arctic sky at night? I think I can answer this one now- even without a northern lights sighting, that sounds like an adventure worth having.