This story begins Friday night when I learned that a large coronal mass ejection (CME) sent a burst of solar radiation from the sun headed toward Earth. It was predicted to intercept our atmosphere on the evening of the 8th, producing auroral activity in the high latitudes. Given the size of this solar storm, as described by spaceweather.com, I was a bit suspicious that the auroras migh be big enough to see all the way down here in northern Idaho. So, I kept a watch looking for evidence of such activity.
On the evening of the 8th, I checked Spaceweather and confirmed that there had been some strong auroral activity, and that it had been seen earlier that morning as far south as Utah. I rushed outside and didn’t see much. I set up the camera for a test shot and picked up some faint auroral glow, but it seemed to be far in the distance and nothing worth getting excited over. I was beginning to think that I had missed the aurora and should have stayed up the night before. Throuout the evening, I would periodically go out side and take a test shot of the northern sky, and while the glow got brighter, it never reached the level that it had during previous auroras. So while I went out for the last test shot at 11:30, Erin had gone to bed. I stayed up in an attempt to finish grading exams, but ended up nodding off in the middle. I admitted defeat and around midnight, decided to quit and go to bed.
Before turning in for the night, I stepped out to check the sky once more. I figured, it wouldn’t hurt. Of course, I wasn’t expecting to see columns of light beaming high into the night sky. The aurora had really flared up. So I grabbed my jacket and my camera and decided to drive a few miles south where there were some flat fields and a clearer view of the sky. I was mostly interested in photographing the aurora with a different foreground than the usual barn and trees outside the house. When I pulled off the road and set up the camera, I got something I wasn’t expecting at all. There were full-fledged curtains streaking from the north across the sky overhead, and they could be seen clearly with the naked eye. This was too much to bear. I quickly set up the camera and snapped the first shot. Thankfully, there was cell service where I was and I was able to call Erin and get her out of bed for this one. I also called Colleen, who promptly got in her car and headed out to our place from Moscow.
Meanwhile, I stood out in the field for a good 20 or 30 minutes marvelling at the dancing curtains while snapping away. At one point, I noticed a flash in the sky. I thought maybe someone had come out with a spotlight, but there was no other human activity to be found. It happened again, and again, and soon I noticed that the light was radiating from the north and travelling toward me in waves. The activity persisted for a good 20 minutes and then subsided. At that point, the cold was getting to me, and I decided to head home rather than wait for Erin and Colleen to come out.
The activity had subsided for a while, but I kept an eye on the reports from spaceweather.com. We went out again a little after 1:00 to see if the activity had returned, and indeed, the band across the sky had gotten brighter with some faint pillars streaking upward. Rather than drive back out to higher ground, we went into the field behind the house to see what was happening. The aurora certainly wasn’t as big as it was earlier, but it had gotten bright green. We waited to see if it would flare up some more, but it never seemed to get any bigger. So, by 1:30, we all decided to call it a night. Erin and I finally went to bed by 2:00, and after one last look at the sky, it seemed that the glow had faded out. Maybe the activity peaked again in the early hours of the morning, but I had already seen something good. After all, I had to be up in 3 hours to get ready for work.
While the lack of sleep had taken its toll on me, it was totally worth it to witness this totally awesome spectacle of the universe. A geomagnetic storm this strong doesn’t happen very often, and when it does, I’ll be sure to be outside capturing it.