The Northern Lights

October 21, 2001
Photographs taken from 7:30 - 10:15 p.m., October 21, 2001

Energy from an X1.6-class solar flare - originating from sunspot 9661 - had reached the Earth's magnetosphere earlier in the day - at about 11:50 a.m. CDT. I knew from looking at various sites on the internet that activity was intense - and that there was good potential to see the northern lights this evening.

With the sky clear in the early evening, it was my plan to be set up about 90 minutes after sunset (sunset was at 6:45 p.m. so I wanted to be at the farm by 8:15 p.m.).  However, knowing the the activity could be intense, I drove out to the farm early, arriving at 7:25 p.m. I quickly set up my camera and tripod, and was ready for any action at 7:30 p.m. - 45 minutes earlier than previously planned.

I took a look at my surroundings. There was a lot of light to the west as it was dusk. The near quarter moon was shining brightly to the south-southwest. Mars was shining brightly about 35 degrees above the southern sky. There were some clouds to the north, and a bank of clouds to the west, just above the horizon.

I shivered some. It was a little cool out, but not near as cold as it could be at this time of the year.  The warmer fall weather had not conditioned me to the cooler night temperatures and so I did not even think to bring a heavier jacket, gloves and cap.

I figured I had one or maybe even two hours to see the northern lights based on the cloud bank to the west.

I watched the night sky in anticipation, knowing there was a good chance of seeing a show.

The sky was getting darker to the east.

Just before 7:35 p.m., I was looking to the east-southeast. It seemed like the entire eastern sky had a glow. But it was really hard to tell with all the light in the sky. I questioned if I was just wishing that I was seeing some activity because I was excited about the potential that evening.  I thought - if there really is activity already - and directly east-southeast - it's going to be a good show.

I took four photographs, just to see if anything would show up on the photographs (yes - the photo below does show activity). I probably overexposed the photographs because of all the light in the sky (again true).

This is the point that I quit taking notes in my journal - you'll see why.

All of a sudden - at about 7:35 p.m. - the sky erupted with activity. I first saw a bright red glow to the east, to about 50 degrees in the sky.


Several red areas covered the sky, including to the northwest where there was still a lot of light in the sky.  I quickly took a number of photos (again, overexposing some because it was nowhere near a completely dark night).

Then, about five rays, spaced evenly in the north sky, all seemed to point to a spot directly north, about 75 degrees.

The white rays, pointing to this area, along with the pink-red glow was awesome - the best sighting I have ever seen of the northern lights (in the 18 months that I have been doing this). Unfortunately, the photographs didn't show what could be visually seen.

The show went until about 8 p.m. I was disappointed in the location I chose, as there were no good foreground materials to include in the photographs, and I couldn't waste the time to move, knowing how a show can fizzle in minutes.

At 8:05 p.m., I quickly drove to another location in a pasture - one-half mile east through a pasture, then one-half mile north on a four-lane paved highway, then one mile west on a gravel road, and finally one-fourth mile south in a bumpy pasture.

Activity was somewhat quiet - but I could see some rays to the northwest. Also, there was a white glow to the east - the shape was like a bowl placed just below the eastern horizon.

At about 8:25 p.m., I drove back to the farm. There was an arc in the sky, from northwest to the east, almost like a rainbow except that the glow was green. The eastern sky was still a white glow. A single ray appeared to the northwest.

Activity quieted, and at 9 p.m., I went inside the house, turned on the television, looked at the football scores, had a pop and some chocolate chip cookies, and then checked a weather report to see how close the clouds were. 

During this time, I got up from the recliner a number of times to look out the north window - only to see very little activity. The satellite photograph on tv showed that the clouds would soon cover the sky, and so at 9:30 I walked back outside to check the activity.

As I walked outside, a bright red glow to the east quickly caught my attention. Here I was, watching television when the activity was again getting intense - I guess I could have gone without the pop and chocolate chip cookies.

I quickly drove about 200 yards to a windmill on top of a hill and took some photographs. The activity was intense and beautiful. At about 9:50 p.m., the entire north sky, up to 80 degrees, was alive. There were two arcs across the north sky with "short" blue rays. The show was spectacular.








Then the activity started to die down, and the clouds quickly moved in. Time to quit.

At 10:15 p.m., I left for Bismarck. To me, this was unbelievable. I had taken a lot of photographs, and it was only 10:15 p.m., and I was driving home. Usually, the northern lights are barely getting started at this time most nights (and in the summer, it's not even dark yet).

I parked my vehicle in the garage in Bismarck, and walked towards the house. Looking up, I was surprised to see white rays to the north that reached up to about 80 degrees in the sky. This - with all the light from the Bismarck-Mandan area (75,000+ people) - was proof of the intensity of the show.

The next morning, I called my dad. He said he got up at 6:15 a.m. and went outside. It was clear to the west, with some clouds to the east. He said there was a lot of activity to the north, and a lot of pulsations that moved from the north and then overhead very quickly before disappearing. Wow, I would have liked to have seen that, but there's always another day (like tonight - in less than 17 hours).


Hit Counter