Aurorae are created by a stream of fast charged-particle winds originated from the sun. When the solar storm raging on in the upper atmosphere happens at the same time as hurricane-strong wind gusts back down on Earth, you can call it a blast, literally!
As the days are getting longer by the minute in Denmark due to the rotation of the Earth in the seasonal 'bright nights' zone at high mid-latitudes, the nights are consequently getting shorter at an awful pace... for an astrophotographer at least! Even though bright nights are a source of other interesting phenomena like noctilucent clouds, we have to say goodbye to our beloved milky way, nebulas, aurorae and other light phenomena for about three months. Wait up! We still have a little time to say one or two last farewells until mid-May. The last weeks of April are giving us a chance to do so by sending us miraculous shows...
In the four years I have stayed in Denmark, I have never experienced such a cold and cloudy spring. Temperatures have consistently remained below 10 degrees, dropping sometimes well below zero Celcius (-6C on record). As a consequence, everyone is freezing to death, taking a toll on people's mood, but more importantly on plants and animals. Crops and buds have surely suffered from the biting cold at night, and so I have! But hey, there is something you can't control, and you just have to go about it!
The last week hasn't been any different, except for a little clearing for two or three nights in a row. Nonetheless one way or another, one seems to always have to pay the price dearly. Indeed the clouds had been swept by a low atmospheric pressure cell, engendering wind gusts reaching 60 mph! Who would really dare to risk going out in this kind of weather? Only the craziest of people, namely, me.
On Friday 21st 2017, I was just getting off a long and exhausting work week. I watched Tamitha Skov's aurora forecast, who predicted an intense period of potential aurora chasing in the next week due to several consecutive coronal holes, enhancing the solar wind speed. On top of the holes rotating into the Earth-strike zone, two solar flares were triggered, significantly increasing the probability of several powerful solar storms. However nothing notably strong and sustained was forecast for Friday night. I was also far from imagining what was awaiting aurora-wise, and also weather-wise...
Around 10:00pm, I get all my gear ready, packed and drove to Høve beach in the north-western part of Sjælland. As my car was swerving off because of the wind on my way, I decided to get to a location where I could somewhat be protected. Unfortunately the wind was coming from the north north-west, so I was going to get the wind in my face and lens no matter what. Boy, I was thinking I should get an hour worth of shots and then head back home. The gusts were so strong and gear/life-threatening for four different reasons:
1) As I was shooting along the tree line to get maximum protection, a tree fell off 50 meters away from the spot I was shooting at...
2) Staying hours in this kind of weather is definitely not recommended if you don't have enough layers. Do you know the expression being chilled to the bones?
3) The untamed Baltic waters produced thin foam particles that got blasted off towards the shore and deposited onto the lens, blurring the images and potentially jeopardizing the life expectancy of you cameras if not protected.
4) A photographer's worst nightmare: thin white sand grains. Even though the Baltic white-sanded beaches are that of paradise vision during the day, they can turn your windy night into hell. I didn't know that Denmark could get sand storms! Sand got airborne when wind gusts were powerfull enough (which was every 15 seconds) and pulverizes everything: your eyes, your cameras and your face. But most dangerously for your gear, all downwind areas of low pressure receive a tremendous amount of sand that deposits everywhere. My bags got literally buried in sand, and I found sand particles virtually everywhere the next day, including in my underwear... Sand is a dire threat for your camera and gear as it can find its way into the sensor, seams or different pressure mechanisms (focus ring, buttons...) and wreak havoc on them, making them unusable. It can also potentially produce unrepairable scratches on your fragile glass and sensor. I spent three hours trying to get rid of sand the next day, and I am sure that I missed a few grains! My advice: stay far away from beaches or deserts on a windy day.
I was about to get in my car as fast as I arrived, when I detected a green arc on camera in the dimming twilight at around 10.40 pm. 'Okay, I'll stay for a little bit longer', I thought grudgingly. The arc kept growing bit by bit and at around 11.00pm the explosion I had been expecting for a long time happened. You know, the one that doesn't last long but that illuminates the whole landscape. The one that produces goose bumps on your skin. The kind that makes you come again time after time. The kind that makes you brave the storm to get the perfect shot, because it is totally worth risking your gear and potentially your life... As I am making sure to record the 'aurora moment' on all my cams, I am standing in front of gigantic light pillars brightening up the Scandinavian sky. It is not too much about colors, because our eyes cannot pick up all the pink/blue colors, but it is more about the intensity of the light emanating out of nowhere that is impressive.
I made a comparison of reality versus camera so you can see what to look for next time if you live under our latitudes. The eye cannot pick up all the beautiful colors as well as the camera does, but only the eye can appreciate the true size and atmosphere of the show, because of our retina's excellent dynamic range and zoom possibility. The pillars look way brighter and way bigger in reality because of the eye's capabilities. Even the picture on the left is not a true representation. You really have to get out there and see for yourself if you don't trust me ;).
The big show lasted for about fifteen minutes, followed by two-and-a-half hours of back and forth pulsating and dancing pillars. Subsequently I ended up staying till 3 in the morning in the violent chilly wind, but it was totally worth it, once again. It is definitely a night I will remember my whole life!
As a prize for staying longer when most people would have given up, I got featured in TV2 Vejr (Denmark's second national TV channel) and TV ØST prime time, as well as som articles that I will link below and on the 'Adrien Mauduit in the media' page.
WATCH THE AURORA VIDEO
FIND THE RELATED ARTICLES
As the next days brought more quiet auroras due to the leftover high solar winds but lower densities and field strength, I still managed to get out and take some nice colored norther lights on April 22nd and 23rd, as well as some last cool milky way shots. I made another small video featuring them that you can watch here:
I am also including some panorama shots I have made in the past days, most featuring aurora scenes! Enjoy!
PS: be on the lookout tonight for an aurora re-run, as the second fast-solar wind stream hits Earth.