As many of you know the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis occur because the Sun constantly ejects energetic particles that enter Earth’s magnetic field and interact with molecules in the Earth’s atmosphere. Electrons in those molecules become energized and emit colorful light in the sky, often green because of the presence of Oxygen. The closer you are to the magnetic pole, the more often you will see this phenomenon. As luck would have it, my recent transition to part time work, which consists of 2 weeks a month covering hospitals in need, generally outside of New Mexico, I found myself in Hancock MI or the “Upper Peninsula”. I say luck because I discovered I was a lot further north than I realized (48+ N latitude) and as I found out from the locals, the Northern Lights were not infrequently observed from this location! The town sits on this spur of land jutting into Lake Superior which looks as big as the ocean. Huge swaths of deciduous trees can be seen which at this time are rainbow-like with color! Reminds me a lot of Northern New England where I spent most of my life. So it is cold but very picturesque.
Enter modern technology , where you can download any one of a million phone apps which can tell you when Northern Lights are visible from your location and text you alerts accordingly. Data is from the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) The “Kp-index” is the global geomagnetic activity index that is based on 3-hour measurements from ground-based magnetometers around the world. Each station is calibrated according to its latitude and reports a certain K-index depending on the geomagnetic activity measured at the location of the magnetometer. The values range from 0-9. 9 is probably after a huge solar eruption such as a coronal mass ejection or giant flare. In those cases you probably can see the northern lights very far south. Hancock is located in the 5 range. In other words when the Kp is predicted to be 5 or above you should be able to see auroral activity from the Hancock area. That really isn’t that high. Most of the time the activity is around Kp=3 so the events in Hancock can be observed even a couple of times per month in the Fall and Spring!
And so it was on the morning of Sept 28th, there was a predicted auroral event for the Hancock area. At 3:30 AM I was about to head out the door when I got called to the local hospital for a consultation (Darn! Always happens at the worst possible time!) . No matter, luckily I was done by 4:30 and I then literally raced to Calumet Waterworks Park which sits on the Lake Superior shore, only about a 30 minute drive. My phone is bleeping with text alerts. It’s pitch dark out. I could not tell where the lake was from the forest. Finally I found the park sign so I knew I had arrived. I got out of the car and looked up. Crisp, clear dark skies! I was thinking to myself: “Geez, I bet these are like Bortle 2-3 skies at worst. Might be a great imaging spot”. But this was a scouting mission just to see if I could see the aurora and confirm the accuracy of the forecasts. The pictures will have to wait. Plus it was cold and I wasn’t really dressed properly for an extended stay unfortunately. I see the constellation Gemini to the East and that gets my bearings. I head north and see a fence, actually almost bumping into it. It is totally ink black out there and hoping there are no bears around! I can hear what sounds like the ocean with gentle waves hitting a beach. Lake Superior! Then through some sparsely aggregated trees looking north it was dead obvious, like a huge fog bank eerie and white, right over the lake in the distance. I knew it wasn’t fog because after several minutes of dark adaptation I could see huge arcs of white light shooting upward, to about maybe 50 degrees of altitude. Unquestionably this was it! The Northern Lights! There was no discernible color but I could not stay out there longer than about 20 minutes. Yes, the forecasts were 1000% accurate! Next day my wife and I drove out to the park so I could see it during the day. There is a wooden staircase to the right of the fence that goes down to the beach. About halfway down there is a landing which is big enough for a tripod and camera! Next time!
Thanks for reading!