The great Aurora of March 30-31, 2001



  A massive sunspot complex has spawned a solar flare which has doused the Earth in a shower of 'charged particles'. Earth's uppermost atmosphere glows where this shower from the Sun rains upon it, normally restricted by Earth's magnetic field to roughly circular zones closely surrounding the magnetic poles. This night the auroral zone widened and migrated southward to mid latitudes where these amazing aerial shows are rarely seen.

   I heard Art Bell, a national overnight talk show host broadcasting from Pahrump, Nevada, exclaim that his northern sky was red after he went out to take a look when his wife excitedly interrupted the show. His latitude is similar to mine so I ran outside and saw the Aurora from the ground for the first time in my life! There was a tall red diffuse glow stretching from the Northeast horizon to over half way to the zenith. I grabbed my digital camera and a tripod and captured some time exposures as the ethereal display gradually broke up into several soft crimson rays, shifting in brightness from one side to the other. I hastened to my viewing field at the end of my block, and obtained some exposures just as the display reached a peak between 10:15 and 10:20. I could understand how people could mistake this for a catastrophic fire just beyond the horizon.









  I then packed up my tripod and camera and drove to Joshua Tree National Monument, some 50 miles away, where the skies are nearly pristine. On the way I heard, in between talk about 'shadow people' and 'aliens', descriptions of aurora from all over the country. One caller reported the birds stirring as if in response to dawn. By the time I arrived the display had seemingly largely faded, but a pale green glow extended well above the northern horizon that I first imagined was light pollution from a giant city, but there simply wasn't one in that direction. Some distant clouds were sillouetted against this glow which extended along a quarter of the horizon. This soon revealed soft vertical bordered brightness variations and a modest red ray emerged whose progress I followed as it slowly shifted itself about toward the Eastern horizon. The sequence to the right was obtained between 1:05 and 1:29 A.M. By 2 A.M. the red rays became too dim to distinguish the color visually, but a few last digital images, exposed about 20 seconds, revealed not only the greenish horizon glow but a surprisingly widespread faint remnant of the earlier redness.