As many of us prepare to witness and photograph the awe-inspiring aurora, it’s crucial to understand that photographing these celestial displays involves more than meets the eye.
Exploring the Boundaries of Photography
A debate rages in the world of photography, revolving around the use of in-camera and post-production digital effects and whether they still fall within the realm of “photography.” This debate gains particular significance when it comes to capturing the captivating beauty of the auroras. Photography often straddles the line between reality and artistic interpretation.
Human eyes perceive only a fraction of the extensive spectrum of information that constitutes our reality. Some physicists even hypothesize that our universe might be a mere “product of quantum machinations in a lower dimensional setting,” suggesting that reality itself could be illusory.
Nonetheless, for practical purposes, we rely on a form of “naïve realism,” accepting the world we perceive as genuine to navigate our daily lives and societal interactions.
However, photography introduces an additional layer of complexity, bridging the gap between what we see and what can be conveyed. This complexity becomes most apparent when we endeavor to capture the elusive beauty of the auroras.
The Aurora Phenomenon
We are fast approaching Solar Maximum, a phase in the sun’s 11-year magnetic cycle characterized by the reversal of its magnetic poles. During this period, solar activity surges, marked by an increase in sunspots and solar irradiance by 0.07%. Solar storms, complete with Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) that expel vast amounts of plasma and magnetic fields into space, become more frequent.
CMEs typically take 15-18 hours to reach Earth, hurtling at speeds ranging from 250 kilometers per second (km/s) to nearly 3,000 km/s. To put this in perspective, the fastest human-made object, the Parker Solar Probe, reached a sluggish speed of 147.5 km/s. The maximum speed limit on a typical US Interstate Highway is 0.033 km/s.
When these high-velocity, energized particles collide with Earth’s upper atmosphere, they interact with the planet’s magnetic poles and stimulate the molecules in our upper atmosphere, primarily oxygen, to release energy in the form of photons, giving birth to the mesmerizing auroras.
Unveiling Aurora Colors
The colors of an aurora depend on the altitude at which the collision between high-speed particles and atmospheric molecules occurs:
Green Aurora: Formed when particles collide with oxygen molecules at altitudes ranging from 60 to 190 miles (100 to 300 km).
Red Aurora: A rarer occurrence associated with more intense solar activity, happening when high-altitude oxygen molecules, located between 180 to 250 miles (300 to 400 km), become excited.
Blue and Purple Aurora: Result from exceptionally intense solar activity and occur when solar radiation penetrates to altitudes of 60 miles or less. These colors may sometimes blend to create pink and yellow auroras.
It’s crucial to note that while the auroras are a result of radiation and high-energy particles, they pose no danger to us on Earth, as our atmosphere provides ample protection. However, these solar storms can disrupt artificial satellites, causing temporary disruptions in GPS and satellite TV signals.
Predicting and Observing Auroras
Solar weather, much like terrestrial weather, can be somewhat unpredictable. Although the solar cycle was originally predicted to peak in 2025, scientists now anticipate that it will reach its zenith next year, resulting in spectacular displays of the auroras.
Astronomers continuously monitor the sun’s activity and can often predict solar flares and plasma eruptions heading towards Earth. Apps like AuroraWatch UK provide real-time alerts and are valuable tools for aurora enthusiasts.
The likelihood of witnessing the auroras increases the closer you are to Earth’s polar regions. Light pollution from urban areas can obscure these celestial displays, making remote locations, like Pikwitonei in Manitoba, an ideal choice for experiencing the full brilliance of the auroras.
The Challenge of Photographing the Aurora
While our eyes typically perceive the aurora as white or green light due to low light conditions, cameras reveal a more vibrant and colorful spectacle. This is because camera sensors can gather more light when the shutter is left open, and their objective lenses are significantly larger than the human eye’s pupils.
Photographing the auroras, therefore, involves capturing a broader spectrum of colors and details that would otherwise remain concealed to the naked eye. It’s a testament to how photography not only bridges the gap between reality and perception but also offers us a deeper, more vivid view of the cosmos.
In essence, photographing the auroras challenges the boundaries of what we consider “reality” and underscores the transformative power of the photographic medium. It reminds us that while our eyes may capture just a fraction of the universe’s wonders, photography can unveil the hidden splendors that lie beyond our immediate perception.