Monday, March 14, 2011

Solar flare fuels spectacular aurora in Alaska

by Jeff Richardson /

FAIRBANKS - Interior Alaska residents have been treated to a spectacular northern lights show this week, a rare treat following a long stretch of low aurora activity.

A dancing aurora blanketed the area around Fairbanks on Wednesday night, and was followed with a more muted display on Thursday.

Photographer Warren Gammel watched the aurora for hours on Wednesday from Henderson Road.

Gammel wrote: "Beautiful show tonight with lots of energy, swirling coronas and red curtains. The lights were so bright at times they almost washed out the moon!"

The aurora index from the Geophysical Institute Auroral Forecast page was downgraded on Thursday to a level 3, with moderate activity, down from a level 4 a day earlier. A swath of aurora activity extends through the Interior, with the highest intensity area between Fairbanks and Fort Yukon.

Geophysical Institute Director Roger Smith said he expects the aurora to continue for a few more days. The recent burst of activity has been “out of character” for the sun, since the aurora has been tepid for several years. The aurora began a stronger display last week.

“It’s been a minimum essentially since 2006,” Smith said. “The sun is basically waking up and going back to a maximum.”

Smith said solar activity isn’t directly tied to the aurora, but that the two tend to follow the same patterns. Unusually high solar winds have been recorded at a coronal hole on the sun during the past week, and a massive solar flare erupted on Wednesday.

Smith said such flares typically have a delayed auroral effect of a day or two, so he said a delayed effect may still be ahead for aurora watchers.


View an online full-screen slide show gallery of Warren Gammel’s aurora images.


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