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Alaska Life

Solar Borealis Archway's prism of color finally captured by earnest Alaska scientist

  • Author: Craig Medred
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published November 7, 2012

For the last 27 years, retired University of Alaska Fairbanks professor Kenelm Philip has driven by the colorful Solar Borealis archway that extends over the exit of Fairbanks International Airport and Airport Way, occasionally stopping to photograph the arch with hopes of catching its full prism of radiance. But, until recently, he'd never been successful.

The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reports that it took Philip 27 years to capture the archway's full color spectrum. But when asked, he told Alaska Dispatch it took him a while to get serious about the project.

"I didn't try very hard, but occasionally I'd drive by and I'd have a camera in the car and I'd think I should shoot it ... (but) every time it would show up white, there'd be no color," he said.

Philip added that his camera, if used with automatic settings, would always leave "the arch overexposed." So, after years of unsuccessfully snapping the structure, he decided to get serious and investigate why he was having difficulty arresting the vibrant colors.

"I realized that the diffracted sunlight coming off the arch is very, very bright and the background predominates" he told the News-Miner. Philip went back to the arch "to attempt to find out how it was that the diffraction grating worked both horizontally and vertically, allowing it to alter the color of the selection in the pond," he said via email.

Philip decided to try setting his Nikon Cool Pix P510 digital camera to "minus 2 EV," two F-stops below the normal setting. This resulted in a successful shot, although, Philip added, "the background (was) very dark" and he had to use Adobe Photoshop Elements to lighten the image.

The end result is his beautifully vivid shot of the Borealis archway.

Metal refracted in sub-Arctic sunlight

The archway, as Philip describes, is metal sheathed in a "smooth layer of clear plastic coating" and covered in "quarter to half-inch squares" that bear cross-hatching, forming four triangles through which light is emitted. Small horizontal lines "split the colors of the sunlight up and down, and the side triangles have lines that go up and down and they split the sun sideways," he told the News-Miner.

The Solar Borealis Arch was selected in 1983 from 200 different designs submitted to the Alaska Percent for Art project for the Fairbanks International Airport, according to the News-Miner. The artist is Californian Robert Behrens, and the arch was installed in 1985.

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