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Aurora borealis mesmerizes watchers who toughed out frigid weather for event

By Michelle Theriault Boots, McClatchy Newspapers –

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The aurora borealis streaking across Alaska skies this week captivated sky watchers who camped out in sub-zero temperatures to photograph the lights, billed as the most active in years.

At the same time, scientists say the light show is a sign of a new solar cycle that heralds many geomagnetic storms.

That means more visible auroras — and potentially disruption to the satellites humans rely on for everything from spy surveillance to GPS tracking.

Alaskans will be witnessing much more aurora activity in the near future, said University of California, Los Angeles geophysicist Yuri Shprits, who studies the potential impacts of solar storms on satellite systems.

A storm happens when massive amounts of radiation from solar flares hit the Earth’s magnetic field.

“For a long time, we had one of the quietest periods of electromagnetic activity,” Shprits said in a phone interview from Los Angeles. “After such a long time the sun is waking up and it’s big news.”

It can be dramatic.

For the past week, solar storms of a magnitude unseen in the last decade have been raging in space, according to NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center.

The effects have been rolling down to Earth’s atmosphere in the form of strong auroras for days, lighting up Northern skies with sometimes ghostly, sometimes explosive displays.

Solar radiation from a much larger geomagnetic storm than the one the Earth has experienced in the past week could have lasting damage to satellite systems “for years” after the storm ended, Shprits said.

People don’t realize how much they depend on satellites for technology, navigation and even communicating with ATM machines, he said.

“We should be more aware of (geomagnetic storm activity),” he said. “We’ll see much more soon.”

Alaskans have a front seat to a solar storm’s most obvious earthly manifestation

For a Fairbanks crew of self-described “Aurora Chasers,” Tuesday night’s predicted aurora was akin to a Christmas present from the solar system.

Ronn Murray, a sleep-deprived Fairbanks photographer and new dad to a 3-week-old son, planned to spend the night outside in -25 degree temperatures.

Murray’s wife had given the plan her blessing, he said.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute predicted “highly active” aurora displays visible over many parts of Alaska, from Barrow to Ketchikan, for Tuesday night. The display is expected to taper off Wednesday and Thursday.

“I’ve been chasing for five years,” Murray said. “And this is the best I’ve ever seen.”

Murray and a small cadre of other hard-core aurora photographers who met on Twitter and Facebook gather most nights when a display is predicted.

They seek spots — like local favorites Ester Dome and Murphy Dome — that offer a wide blanket of sky. Sometimes that means driving 30 or 40 miles out the Steese Highway.

Then, in temperatures that can dip into the minus 40s, they watch and photograph from 8 p.m. until 6 or 7 in the morning, huddling inside cars to get warm and snacking on beef jerky and granola. The trick is “many, many layers” of clothing, Murray said.

He takes hundreds of images per night, some stills, some time lapses, shooting with a professional-grade Canon SLR camera and selling his images on his website.

The group — which numbers between three and a half-dozen — planned to head up the Dalton Highway Tuesday night, Murray said, hoping that a partly-cloudy forecast wouldn’t materialize.

During long nights of photographing auroras, the lights are occasionally overwhelming enough to get Murray to stop clicking the camera.

Sometimes, he said, he just stops and looks up.

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