The Return of the Aurora Borealis

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2014 has been a pretty bad year for those wishing to see the northern lights from more southern latitudes, particularly on the west coast. There have been a number of promising storms forecast, but they have mostly either been weaker than forecast, or peaked when it is still light.

Accordingly, while I had a number of sightings (and took a number of photographs) of the aurora last year, this year the best I’ve managed to capture has been a faint green glow on the horizon. However, on Saturday things took a promising turn, when a storm that was forecast to be quite minor was appearing to be unexpectedly strong.

I kept an eye on the forecast throughout the evening, and saw that the east coast was getting a good display. To my surprise, as it got later and the aurora started to appear in the west, the forecast was still strong, so I grabbed my gear and headed out along the Sea to Sky highway, which links Vancouver and Whistler, to a spot about half an hour’s drive from Vancouver.

Even when all the signs are pointing to a good display, it’s very rare that the northern lights are constantly dancing this far south. It’s much more common to have a faint green glow most of the time, and for occasional spikes of activity that last for a minute or two that light up the sky, so although I couldn’t see anything when I got there, I knew that I’d have to give it a reasonable amount of time.

A perfectly clear night made for good viewing conditions but cold weather, with a temperature of –4, which starts off not being too bad, but after you’ve been standing in one spot for three hours starts to get rather chilly! I set up my camera to start taking exposures and waited to see if anything would happen!

After I’d been there for about an hour and a half, at around 12:30am, suddenly the sky started to dance with light. It was fainter than many of the displays I’ve seen around Vancouver, but more colourful as well, with some beautiful red pillars that nicely contrasted the green glow, which also grew significantly stronger. For about half an hour from 12:30am to 1:00am, I got to see my first good display of the aurora this year, before it once again faded back to a level that even the camera could barely pick up.

This is a composite shot of about 8 frames taken between 12:30am and 1:00am, capturing the best of the pillars of light and the colour. Each of these shots was taken at ISO 3200, 24mm, f/4, for 30 seconds. To get more detail in the foreground on this dark and moonless night, I took a longer exposure of 5 minutes.

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