Let there be (northern) lights

Posted: Monday, November 09, 1998

Bands of green light with hints of red streaked through Juneau skies over the weekend as an aurora borealis display danced above Southeast.

Nancy Waterman, a fan of the night sky and a volunteer at the Marie Drake Planetarium, said the undulating display of northern lights lasted longer and came out earlier in the evening than usual.

``We were seeing them at 6:30 (p.m.) or so. That's early,'' she said. ``We took out our futon and our sleeping bags.''

The shimmering was clearly visible in town Saturday night, and continued though just before sunrise this morning. Charles Deehr, auroral forecaster for the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said the aurora was visible farther to the south than he had expected.

He said the lights were caused by solar flare activity.

``On the fourth, we had a solar flare that was directed to the Earth,'' Deehr said. ``There were, I think, three flares altogether and they were in the right direction.''

The weekend display, Deehr said, was about average by auroral standards, and is probably over for Southeast.

``There's still something left, but I don't think it will get as far as Juneau,'' he said.

Auroras are caused by charged particles, electrons, from the sun that intermingle with the earth's magnetic field and then ram into the upper atmosphere. The colors of an aurora vary from red to blue to green to crimson.

According to Deehr, northern lights dance in Juneau's skies about 40 percent of the time, but clouds, lights and the moon obscure them.

``A lot of these things occur at times when, heaven forbid, it's raining in Juneau,'' he said.

Next week there'll be another reason to look skyward as the Leonid meteor storm peaks on Nov. 17.

The storm takes place each November as the Earth passes through the tail of Comet Temple-Tuttle, which orbits the sun every 33 years or so. The sky lights up as particles of ice and dust from the comet's tail hit the Earth's atmosphere and burn up.

The storm is expected to generate about 100 shooting stars per hour over Alaska, said Bob Kanan, with the local National Weather Service office.

Juneau's Waterman suggested jokingly a citywide push to convince the power company to dim the town to allow for a good look at Leonid's shooting stars.

``We should all call AEL&P and ask for a general power outage,'' she said.

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