This Aurora Brought to You by a Drought in the Rainforest.

We are right in the middle of an Auroral down cycle.  Sunspot activity peaks every 11 years.  The next peak comes sometime late 2025 or early 2026.  So, if we are in the trough, why is Sitka getting so many decent auroras the last two winters?  I think it’s the drought.  Even in down cycles Aurora still exist, it’s just that they’re not so strong.  But in the aurora belt, in places like Iceland and Fairbanks they are still fairly regular.  Sitka is not in the belt but is on the edge of it.  GeographA Drought in the Rainforest and the Aurora.ically we are at 57 degrees north, but because the magnetic North Pole is different from the true North Pole, we actually sit at magnetic 60 degrees north.  That means when there is a strong aurora (for being in a down cycle) we may catch a bit of it.

And while on the upside of the cycle we have certainly seen some spectacular auroral displays I don’t remember seeing them so frequently.  They have always been there it’s just that we haven’t seen them because of cloud cover.  I remember during the last peak being frustrated because I could see them on the satellite image but from the ground, too overcast.  Because of climate change or whatever, we are in a drought.

A drought by SE Alaska standards, Ketchikan gets about 150 inches of precipitation a year. Sitka just over 86 inches.  Ketchikan is down to about 100 inches, (I can’t find Sitka figures for this year.)  Not many other places in the world would consider 100 inches a drought. For us it is bad thing, the snow pack is down meaning that water is warmer. One hatchery actually has to install chillers so the fish will thrive.  Ketchikan, Petersburg and Wrangell have to burn diesel because there isn’t enough water for the hydro plants. 

But because of this drought we have had many clear nights with brilliant stars, and on clear moonless nights we can see the aurora.  They are not generally strong enough to be visible with the ambient light in town, there are some dark places where they can be stunning.  Those places include Starrigavan bridge, the turnout before the ferry terminal, the second turnout on Silver Bay road and the end of Yaw Street in the Indian River valley.  That last spot requires a little bit of a walk along the Cross Trail because someone from the city fixed the street light on the end of Yaw.

Last night (February 27, 2011) I checked the Aurora sites and learned of a minor magnetic storm. I kept looking at the NOAA satellite predictions for the next hour and they looked ok, not great, but ok.  Then I saw a post on Sitka Chatters from Stephanie Patton, the lights were on (or out, I never know how to say it) and I grabbed my camera, extra battery, lens, flashlight and tripod and set out.  On the drive I could see they were active and when I got to a place to set up my tripod, at around 10:30, the lights were active, although a little less so than earlier.  When the camera was set up, I tried to take a picture and it would not print to the SD card.  The camera display told me that the card was “locked.”  That sometimes happens when I slip it in, the slider switch moves.  So, I opened the compartment door on the camera, pushed the card and the spring-loaded card popped out, actually flew out, past my hand and into the night.  I’m glad I had the flashlight.  I finally found it, reinserted it and by then the aurora had cooled down. 

I did get some mediocre pics of the aurora, a nice shot of a shooting star streaking across the picture and some beautiful starry night shows.  I moved toward the ferry terminal where a friend showed me some nice shots he got while I was crawling around looking for my SD card.   We both gave up, I went home and posted three shots on Facebook.  I post 4 here.

I almost immediately got a comment.  “It is AMAZING RIGHT NOW.” So, I grabbed the camera and was off again, settling down at the turnout before the ferry terminal.  I was not disappointed.  They were bright and dancing from a little after midnight until around 1 AM.  Most of the shots were taken with an f1.8 lens with 3 or 5 second exposure with an ISO of 400 or 800.

I didn’t get to sleep until after 2 in the morning.  On Friday I kind of drifted through the day, sleep deprived but floating on an Aurora high. 

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