Fire in the Sky: Aurora Borealis Point Hope, Alaska

Mars hangs above a water silo aglow with lights from the school, a band of auroral light seeming to shoot from the silo like flames. (Click on photos for larger images.)

No photo – and certainly not our first attempts – can do justice to a northern sky on fire and dancing with the eerie green and purple glow of an Aurora Borealis. On this night 200 miles above the Arctic Circle, temperatures were an icy negative 10, pushed even lower by a steady breeze. As the sun sank below the frozen sea to the west, the full moon emerged in the east, close to Earth and huge, the color of a blood orange, hanging on the horizon. Jupiter and Venus were aligned, Mars glowed red as an ember against the black sky and Orion’s belt burned bright. Washing over it all was a breathtaking display of slowly moving green bands, some of them edged in purple, some of them jagged and electric, the band on the northern horizon streaked with pink mixed in with the green.

It’s not uncommon to see a bit of faint green or greenish yellow in the night sky up here. But what we were seeing on this night was of a different magnitude – a rare event tracing back to a spike in activity on the Sun a a few days ago. We made a few quick phone calls to friends. “Go outside and look up!” Meanwhile we got our camera and gear together, realizing, suddenly, that we weren’t ┬ásure how to capture any of this. We met one of our friends in front of the school and walked with her toward the lagoon on the north side of town, away from the lights. In every direction, from horizon to horizon and straight overhead, what we saw stunned us. “This is amazing,” we kept repeating.

Note the three aligned stars of Orion’s belt to the left.

By the time we got our camera figured out, our fingers hurt with cold and the peak of the lights was past. But we still got some photos. A large part of photography is capturing light, and this was a quest for capturing light on a sublime scale.

Fireworks over the Columbia River while sharing a bottle of wine from a balcony at my apartment in Astoria, Oregon, tumblers of Scotch and a sky so impossibly filled with stars we felt like the deck of our mountain cabin in Yosemite was sailing through the Milky Way, a full moon hanging over a becalmed ocean on Prince William Sound with not another boat on the water, a campfire, mesmerizing, at our tent site at Oregon’s Sunset Bay State Park… night skies to come in remote anchorages on the Pacific… Our lives are filled with light.