When the lights go out, blame humans

John Schandelmeier
The northern lights dance across the sky over the Takotna checkpoint during the 2011 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News

Several years back, I woke my kids in the middle of the night. "Come on, get up, look at the northern lights!" The sky was a brilliant red, from horizon to horizon. They did get up and look, but didn't seem quite as impressed as I. Today they don't remember that night.

I remember several spectacular auroras over the years. Once traveling on a dog team, the lights were so bright that the dogs reflected green, their shadows black against the chartreuse snow. Another time on the Upper Yukon, in the light of a full moon, I ran under a rare blue and purple auroral sky. The lights seemed close enough to touch. And, indeed, the blues and reds we see truly are closer to us.

Northern lights occur in our upper atmosphere, the magnetosphere, generally 60 to 100 miles up. The blues and reds are slightly lower, about 50 miles up.

Do the lights make noise? Some folks swear they have heard them, though there is debate as to whether the sound they make can be heard by our ear. The ionosphere is very thin and carries sound poorly. I did find one research project that was able to record sound from the aurora on a sensitive microphone. So -- it is possible that some of us can at least perceive the sounds of an aurora in our heads.

The technical explanation for the aurora is that it occurs when electrically charged particles from the sun's magnetic field are blown outward by the solar wind and contacts earth's magnetic field. The resulting collisions of charged atoms cause light. Colors occur when oxygen and nitrogen molecules are split.

This is undoubtedly so, but the Cree thought it was the spirits dancing and this is a more satisfying explanation of this northern phenomena.

The term "aurora borealis" comes from the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek name for the north wind, Boreas. Most lights occur within 10 to 20 degrees from the magnetic poles, both north and south. However, during solar storms, they can be seen much farther south. In March 1989, solar activity let the folks down in Texas see the aurora. The same intense solar storm created such an electrical charge that it disrupted power in Quebec.

Because sunspot activity and solar eruptions follow somewhat of a pattern, we can predict the aurora to some extent. The predictions may not be quite as accurate as forecasting the weather. Hmmm. Predictions can be helpful, though, for our winter tourists who come to view the lights.

Fairbanks, with its generally clear winter skies and plenty of darkness, has become a favorite destination for aurora viewers. The Japanese in particular seem enthralled with the northern lights and our extreme cold. Sources say the Japanese believe that a child conceived under the aurora will be blessed with good luck. However, one writer says this is bunk -- that belief came from an old Northern Exposure show! A little research will show that most of the winter tourists are single students and older, well-to-do Japanese couples. Go figure.

The Inuits believed that one could look into the northern light and see the images of family and friends dancing in the next life. The Scandinavians thought they were reflections of large shoals of herring, so they could expect good fishing. Whatever your conviction, there is little doubt that the aurora is an integral part of our northern heritage. On the next clear night, check the aurora forecast on the internet, get the kids up, and watch the spirits dance.

As enthralled as folks are with our northern phenomena, it was only a matter of time before we began messing with it. In the 1960s, the military exploded several nuclear devices far up in the atmosphere that disrupted the magnetic activity and actually shut down the aurora. The Poker Flats Research Center, located near Fairbanks, has conducted over 1,700 launches into the magnetosphere since its inception in 1968. Though it is owned and operated by the University of Alaska, the majority of its funding comes from military sources.

The High frequency Active Auroral Research Program, (HAARP), based near Gulkana, is a semi-secret facility designed to "understand, simulate and control ionospheric processes that might alter communication and surveillance systems."

To do this they beam high energy into the magnetosphere. There go the northern lights again.

John Schandelmeier of Paxson is a lifelong Alaskan and Bristol Bay commercial fisherman. A former champion of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, he has written on the outdoors for several newspapers and magazines.