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The aurora borealis or northern lights is a phenomenon of visual wonder for sure. Many nights in the field with a camera have yielded hours of star gazing and magical displays of the aurora–and a few photos. This page offers some points of interest regarding this subject.

Aurora related links

10 aurora digital photography guidelines

1. Shoot in RAW format
2. Turn on Long Exposure Noise Reduction
3. Set LCD Brightness to low
4. Test exposure, consult histogram
5. Have 2 batteries and 2 flash cards
6. Remove the filter from your lens
7. Use a tall but sturdy tripod
8. Use a cable release
9. Know the aurora forecasts
10. Scout a location in daylight

About the Aurora borealis (northern lights)

Arcs of light reach across the sky slowly. They shimmer and turn in loops of shifting colors and brilliance. This is one of the night sky’s most regal displays-the aurora borealis, or “northern lights.” Many times the aurora appears in a ring shape, circling around the dark sky like a splendid crown. When you see this in the Northern Hemisphere, it is called aurora borealis. If you’re in the Southern Hemisphere, it is called aurora australis.

Solar flare and the earth’s magnetic field

Where does this mysterious light come from? The sun is constantly giving off radiation in the form of charged microscopic particles (electrons and protons) in a flow called the solar wind. Earth’s gravity attracts these particles. Once the particles are close to Earth, our planet’s magnetic filed kicks in.

Have you ever held a small magnet underneath a sheet of paper with iron filings on it? When you drag the magnet around, the iron filings follow it, lining up in a neat pattern. Earth’s magnetic field treats solar particles the same way. Auroras occur when solar particles bombard the Earth’s atmosphere. From the ground, these particles shimmer, reflecting light from the sun, but you can only see this effect closer to the North and South Poles. The particles are lined up there at just the right angle for you to see the light.

Some scientists think that there might be some link between the appearances of sunspots and auroras. Sunspots are like storms on the surface of the sun that create huge gusts of solar wind.

Aurora activity

The Aurora is a luminous atmospheric phenomenon occurring most frequently above 60º North or South latitude. It is named specifically according to its location, aurora borealis (northern lights) or aurora australis (southern lights). The aurora borealis and aurora australis are mirror images of one another. The term aurora polaris, polar lights, is a general name for both.

The aurora consists of rapidly shifting patches and dancing columns of light of various hues. Extensive auroral displays are accompanied by disturbances in terrestrial magnetism and interference with radio, telephone, and telegraph transmission.

The period of maximum and minimum intensity of the aurora follows almost exactly that of the sunspot cycle, which is an 11-year cycle. Studies made during and after the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year indicate that the auroral glow is triggered when the solar wind is enhanced by an influx of high-energy atomic particles emanating from sunspots. The electrons and protons penetrate the magnetosphere of the earth and enter the lower Van Allen radiation belt, overloading it. The excess electrons and protons are discharged into the atmosphere over an area centering on the north and south magnetic poles and extending about 20º away from them. These particles then collide with gas molecules in the atmosphere, thereby exciting the molecules and causing them to emit electromagnetic radiation in the visible portion of the spectrum.

Aurora shapes and patterns The aurora assumes an endless variety of forms, including the auroral arch, a luminous arc lying across the magnetic meridian; the auroral band, generally broader and much more irregular than the arch; filaments and streamers at right angles to the arch or band; the corona, a luminous circle near the zenith; auroral clouds, indistinct nebulous masses, which may occur in any part of the heavens; the auroral glow, a luminous appearance high in the sky, the filaments diverging toward the zenith; and curtains, fans, flames, or streamers of various shapes. Auroras have also been observed in the atmosphere of Jupiter.

This text above is adapted from Explore Magazine and Alaska BLM Northern Field office.

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