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Alaska's aurora forecast site goes down as viewing picks up

Mike Dunham
Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News

The forecast for northern lights calls for a show of activity over the next few days, but people making their viewing plans Monday from the usual trusty website operated by the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks were disappointed.

"Sorry, there is no aurora forecast for Monday," read the screen at www.gi.alaska.edu/auroraforecast.

Or for Tuesday. Or Wednesday.

"We have a problem," said Charles Deehr, UAF Professor Emeritus of Physics who volunteers his time with the aurora forecast project.

But he also said that viewing should be fine over most of Alaska, at least those places with clear night skies, for the next several nights.

"We're going to have some good activity," Deehr said. "You could spend your time looking outside all this week."

Deehr noted a large "coronal hole" on the surface of the sun, from which a steady stream of high-speed particles is shooting. Viewed from a position above the sun's north pole, it would appear as a gigantic, graceful spiral washing toward Earth -- "Like a water hose spinning around."

"We're coming into a time in the solar system where we see these things repeating," he said. The superb aurora displays seen over the past week or so can be expected to continue.

The online problem is due to a computer glitch, Deehr said. The site, popular even before the recent upsurge in solar activity and aurora displays, was receiving so many hits that the institute recently changed servers. The person most familiar with the new program is out of town for two weeks. So when trouble occurred, others were left having to deduce how to get the information loaded onto the site.

It's not exactly a university priority.

"We're totally unfunded," Deehr said of the highly popular website. "The institute supports it, but it's not considered 'scientific.' "

The web posts so dear to Alaska's aurora spotters are, in fact, a mostly volunteer effort. "I'm retired, for instance. Just doing it off the cuff," Deehr said.

"We could be in trouble here," he added drily.

At noon on Monday, he noted that the readings were giving a K-4 level of activity on a scale of 0 to 9, 9 being the most extreme. "If it were night right now, you could see them overhead as far south as Homer and on the northern horizon over all of Alaska."

The prediction into Wednesday will be for levels of K-5 or higher. With the raised level of activity on the sun, future viewing could remain excellent until lengthening spring daylight hours obscure the lights -- like in 28 days or so.

Twenty-eight days is the time it takes for the sun to complete a rotation on its axis, at least as it appears from Earth. When an eruption aimed toward Earth recurs in the same spot on the sun's surface, we can expect to come back into the target zone on a near-monthly basis.

"Our 28-day forecast will be out soon," Deehr said.

Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.

Photos: Aurora borealis
By MIKE DUNHAM
Anchorage Daily News