Fairbanks, Alaska Aurora-chasing - Part I (March 10-23, 2015)

Hello. Our names are Susan & Mike. And we have not chased the aurora in 360 days. :-)

Our first stop was the Trans-Alaska Pipeline viewpoint; got a similar pic last year :-)

So, Fairbanks here we come! Thanks to our home exchange friends, we had another Aurora viewing opportunity, locals style. Connecting again with the Alaska Aurora-loving community on FaceBook, we found new locations to view Lady Aurora, shared photography tips, made some new friends and even were invited to a party. 

The space weather cooperated, and although the local weather at times was brutally cold, the skies were mostly clear. We came home with many more memories... and images to share.

We flew in on a red-eye, hoping to catch the aurora from the plane, but no luck with that. We settled into our familiar surroundings quickly, filled our pantry, took a nap and were ready to go out into the sub-zero night see the lights. First night out and BAM! there they were, as good as anything we had seen all of last March concentrated into one night's viewing.


View from Nordale Road, looking mostly east

We could've gone home right then satisfied with our experience. But fortunately we didn't have to, and there was even more space weather on the way. 

It turns out that "2297" must be our lucky number. Active Region (AR) 2297 was the designation for a region of sunspots on the surface of the sun which began rotating into an earth-facing position just as we left for our trip. AR2297 was considered to be a fairly quiet area, but it seemed to be waking up, throwing off several small, medium and large solar flares about the time we arrived in Fairbanks. 


The sun on March 11 showing AR2297. Note size of earth at lower right!

We settled into our daily routine: sleeping as late as possible, monitoring space weather forecasts, interacting with Fairbanks aurora-chasing social networks, taking late-day naps, eating a late dinner, and then heading out into the cold night to several locations to observe and photograph the aurora.

An invaluable resource for aurora-chasing in Fairbanks was the live webcam of Ronn and Marketa Murray. Refreshing their webcam constantly was part of our nightly ritual! Maybe next time we'll join them on an aurora-chasing tour to the Arctic Circle. 


Another shot from Nordale Road, early on March 12

One member of a Facebook group we were a part of invited us to a Pi Day (3.14) celebration. So we drove to Two Rivers, Alaska, about halfway to Chena Hot Springs where we joined Mariska Wright and other aurora-chasers and photographers at the Pleasant Valley Community Center. This was a fantastic viewing location, away from the lights of Fairbanks, plus we had WiFi, restrooms, and a place to warm up. 


Outside the Pleasant Valley Community Center

And we definitely needed to warm up, as we were in a deep freeze! When we arrived on the 10th, it was 20 degrees below zero at the airport, and in the first few days, it was dropping to nearly -30F at night and barely getting above zero during the day. 


Looking northwest from the Pi Day party location in Two Rivers

The Pi Day party was fantastic, and we met several new people, plus someone we met last year. And though this wasn't the most active night of aurora we saw, it was very enjoyable. And we set a new personal record for experiencing cold weather. By about 2am, the temperature at Two Rivers dropped to -33F! 




And with these temperatures, for the first time, Mike had problems with camera batteries conking out in the cold. And it turns out that iPhones don't like this kind of cold either. And Mike nearly got frostbite on his nose from pressing it against the camera. 


Iced over, but still working great!

On our next night out, we went back to Goldstream Road for a little while. But there wasn't a lot of activity, so we quit early (at about 1am). 


Along Goldstream Road, north of Fairbanks

And then AR2297 released an earth-directed Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) on March 15th. CMEs are like candy for aurora chasers, as when the CME hits the earth's magnetic field, we get increased auroral activity. At first, the CME was predicted to hit on March 18, but it arrived a day early, but unfortunately, the skies over Fairbanks were overcast! So frustrating to be at the right place to see the largest solar storm of the last decade and we couldn't see it!


This kind of image (a computer model) gets aurora chasers pretty excited!

But the CME was part of much more active space weather and the next few days had fantastic levels of auroral activity. 

We continued to learn of new locations to see the aurora, and decided to give Transmitter Road on Eielson AFB a try. This was a great place to go. Not many people, very safe, with amenities like coffee and restrooms only 15-20 min away. We decided to get a room on-base and ended up staying out until almost 4am, catching fantastic displays from the St Patrick's Day storm!


9:06pm on Eielson AFB. Aurora before it was even completely dark!


Later along Transmitter Road on Eielson AFB

Eielson AFB

Corona overhead at Eielson AFB

Aurora with clouds near Eielson AFB

More corona


On our second night at Eielson we met up with several people from our FB social group, including some people we met at the Pi Day party. We traded location and photography tips. 


On a frozen lake at Eielson with other Facebook aurora-chasers; purple is lights from North Pole, AK



On another night we went back to the Pipeline viewpoint only to find a tour bus there with dozens of other people. It was quite a zoo around and under the pipeline!

Lots of people here from a tour bus...
... but no people looking to the east!

Another new location was Olnes Pond, about 25 miles north of Fairbanks on the Elliott Highway. Pretty dark there, but not far from the highway itself, which made it none too quiet. 


Looking north from Olnes Pond

More friends we stumbled into at Olnes Pond

Star Trails with aurora at Olnes Pond (stacked images)

We also decided to check out a nearby parking lot closer to where we were staying. This was just a couple of miles away, at the Large Animal Research Station (LARS), part of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. We didn't really expect to see a great display there as it was so close to the city, but the views were to the north and we had a fantastic display. 


The view from the LARS parking lot

Another from LARS

Another from LARS

After stopping at LARS, we drove up onto the UAF campus and was surprised to see the bright aurora over the Museum of the North. Unfortunately, we were just worn out by this point and managed to knock the focus off on the camera, so only got this blurry picture. :-(

Museum of the North at UAF (note aurora over the building)

We were so pleased to have had the opportunity to see so much Aurora in only a two week period. As our red eye flight took off over an hour late, we watched the first moon we had seen in Alaska this trip setting out of our plane window. The plane was half full so we each had a port side window seat with no one else in the row. Maybe 10 minutes into the flight I turned around to talk to Mike, looked out and saw green. She was waving goodbye! What a perfect ending to our trip.

Getting ready to leave Fairbanks for home

Aurora viewed from our plane at over 30,000'

Another shot from the plane

Here's one more aurora shot we like. So the last picture on this page isn't blurry. :-)


Corona

This was a great trip, and we are so delighted to have made so many new friends (Mariska, Monica, Mary, Celeste, Pattie, Diane, Terry, Bill, Jon, Zane, Roger and more), and learned so much more about chasing the aurora. 

Click here to continue on to Part II of the Fairbanks trip with photos from other activities besides aurora-chasing.

3 comments:

  1. This was an enjoyable read, thank you for sharing your incredible journey! House sharing is a great idea, I may look into this!

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  2. I love this! Until next year!

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  3. You got lucky with an amazing week of Aurora!

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