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Six decades of pondering the inner workings of the aurora

Ned Rozell
Location is a key factor when preparing to photograph northern lights. As aurora activity increases it normally starts from the east as Earth rotates into the dancing lights.
Brandon Lovett photo
On the night of March 16, 2013, the northern lights were out in force across Alaska. This photo was taken from Eureka Lodge between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m.
Loren Holmes photo
The milky way is colored by faint aurora at Tahneta pass in the early morning hours of November 13, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Northern Lights, October 12, 2012
Courtesy Todd List
Traditionally, good times for aurora viewing and photographing in Alaska come between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. But during strong solar storms aurora can be seen at all hours once the sky darkens.
Brandon Lovett photo
On the night of March 16, 2013, the northern lights were out in force across Alaska. This photo was taken from Eureka Lodge between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m.
Loren Holmes photo
The Northern Lights dance above Tahneta pass in the early morning hours of November 13, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Northern lights as seen from Talkeetna on Oct. 12, 2012.
Dora Miller photo
When photographing northern lights, controlling the movement of your camera is paramount. Remote shutter release is one way to keep movement minimal.
Brandon Lovett photo
On the night of March 16, 2013, the northern lights were out in force across Alaska. This photo was taken from Eureka Lodge between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m.
Loren Holmes photo
The Northern Lights dance above Sheep Mountain in the early morning hours of November 13, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Northern lights as seen over Nikiski on Oct. 12, 2012.
Leslie Richards photo
Aurora dances above a residence in Bear Valley, on the south side of Anchorage, on Oct. 12, 2012.
Courtesy Chuck Berray
A view of the northern lights from the International Space Station on Jan. 29, 2012.
NASA photo
The Northern Lights dance above Sheep Mountain in the early morning hours of November 13, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
The northern lights were strong enough on Oct. 12, 2012 to be seen even in the city lights of Anchorage.
Jacob Todd photo
Aurora above Anchorage, Alaska, on Oct. 12, 2012.
Courtesy Chuck Berray
North Pole and Fairbanks got a nice light show early March 3,2013. For about 45 minutes the aurora ebbed and flowed in the sky. Lara Poirrier of Northern Source Images was able to catch this photo.
Lara Poirrier, Northern Source Images
The Northern Lights dance above Sheep Mountain in the early morning hours of November 13, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Northern Lights above Eagle River, with Denali in the background.
Courtesy Alaska's Nature
Aurora weaves under the Big Dipper constellation in Palmer, Alaska.10:30 p.m., Oct 12., 2012.
Courtesy Thom Swavely
Photographer Trevor Gridley says he "caught this image on the way to work a while back" in Interior Alaska.
Trevor Gridley
Northern lights dance above the Knik river early morning November 8, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
The Northern Lights dance above southcentral Alaska skies on September 30, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
A view of the northern lights on Nov. 23, 2012 near Fox, Alaska.
Lucie Steiger photo
Beautiful crazy colors captured in Alaska's Interior during the winter of 2013.
Trevor Gridley
Northern lights dance above the Knik river as the moon rises early morning November 8, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
The Northern Lights dance above southcentral Alaska skies on September 30, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
A view of the northern lights on Nov. 23, 2012 near Fox, Alaska.
Lucie Steiger photo
Northern Lights dance above Palmer on Dec 16, 2012.
Courtesy Thom Swavely
Northern Lights over North Pole, Alaska, November 1, 2012
Courtesy Lara Poirrier
Northern Lights above Alaska on September 30, 2012
Courtesy Melissa Wollman
The northern lights on Nov. 23, seen just north of Fairbanks in the Steele Creek area.
Ed Gonzalez photo
Northern Lights dance above Palmer on Jan 15, 2013.
Courtesy Thom Swavely
Northern Lights over North Pole, Alaska, November 1, 2012
Courtesy Lara Poirrier
The northern lights, photographed in Fairbanks, Alaska. September 18, 2012
Courtesy Brandon Lovett
This image was taken at Chena Hot Springs Resort in Interior Alaska. (Image cropped from original)
Aaron Corbeil
Northern Lights dance above Palmer on Dec 16, 2012.
Courtesy Thom Swavely
Northern Lights over North Pole, Alaska, November 1, 2012
Courtesy Lara Poirrier
The northern lights, photographed in Fairbanks, Alaska. September 18, 2012
Courtesy Brandon Lovett
The Northern Lights dance above Tahneta pass in the early morning hours of November 13, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Northern Lights over North Pole, Alaska, November 1, 2012
Courtesy Lara Poirrier
The northern lights, photographed in Fairbanks, Alaska. September 18, 2012
Courtesy Brandon Lovett
This image was captured just outside of Fairbanks at the pipeline viewpoint.
Trevor Gridley
The Northern Lights dance above Sheep Mountain in the early morning hours of November 13, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Northern Lights over North Pole, Alaska, November 1, 2012
Courtesy Lara Poirrier
The northern lights, photographed in Fairbanks, Alaska. September 18, 2012
Courtesy Brandon Lovett
Northern lights above O'Malley peak in Anchorage. May 1, 2013
Courtesy Todd Running
The Northern Lights dance above Sheep Mountain in the early morning hours of November 13, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Northern Lights over North Pole, Alaska, November 1, 2012
Courtesy Lara Poirrier
Aurora chasing is always a game of chance: even nights predicted for good viewing oftentimes don't pan out. The sky must be clear and you must be far from city lights. Oh - and the universe itself must cooperate, too.
Brandon Lovett photo
Northern lights above O'Malley peak in Anchorage. May 1, 2013
Courtesy Todd Running
The Northern Lights dance above Sheep Mountain in the early morning hours of November 13, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Northern Lights over North Pole, Alaska, November 1, 2012
Courtesy Lara Poirrier
Northern lights blaze over Alaska all year long. However, come May, June and July, much of the state is bathed in 20-24 hours of sunlight, making the aurora difficult to watch.
Brandon Lovett photo
Northern Lights dance above North Pole on April 14, 2013
Courtesy Northern Source Images
The Northern Lights dance above Tahneta pass in the early morning hours of November 13, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Northern Lights, October 12, 2012
Courtesy Todd List
Northern lights activity increases with solar storms. This year has seen several massive solar storms, and the aurora borealis viewing has in turn been pretty amazing over Alaska, particularly earlier in 2012.
Brandon Lovett photo
Aurora borealis shimmers over Delta Junction, Alaska, just after midnight on Thursday, Aug. 23. (More photos: Facebook.com/SebastianSaarloos)
Sebastian Saarloos photo
Northern Lights dance above North Pole on April 14, 2013
Courtesy Northern Source Images
The Northern Lights dance above the Eureka Roadhouse in the early morning hours of November 13, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Northern Lights, October 12, 2012
Courtesy Todd List

Sometimes, after idling in the sky for hours as a greenish glow, the aurora catches fire, erupting toward the magnetic north pole in magnificent chaos that can last for three hours. “Substorms,” as space physicists call them, can happen two or three times each night.

The man who came up with that name half a century ago has, with a former student he once mentored, come up with a new theory on the location of heavenly energy for these auroras.

Syun-Ichi Akasofu first heard the word aurora from his mother, who sang it to him in a lullaby. He would not see the phenomenon until he was 28. At that time, in the late 1950s, he traveled from Japan to the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He has been here ever since.

Six decades in far north

During much of his six decades in the far north, he has pondered the complicated mechanisms that trigger the aurora. But there was a 20-year gap in Akasofu’s academic pursuits when he served first as director of the Geophysical Institute and then the International Arctic Research Center, both at UAF. He retired from high-level administrative work in 2007, and now spends fewer hours at the office.

Now that he has free moments, Akasofu has, with some controversy, dug in to study the natural component of climate change, pointing out that the world should be getting warmer as it recovers from the Little Ice Age, which ended in the 1800s.

He has also returned to his first love, the aurora. Akasofu and the man who was his first post-doctoral student — Tony Lui of Johns Hopkins University — have come up with an idea that’s different from a foundational belief of many who study space physics. That is not unusual for the 83-year-old contrarian.

“I always become suspicious when many scientists agree on some interpretation,” Akasofu once said.

Tsunami of hot gases

Before pondering what he believes is evidence for the new idea about substorms, here’s an oversimplified view of how one works:

Our sun, that burning ball of hydrogen gas, blasts a constant tsunami of gases over Earth. This solar wind flows over and behind Earth like a stream rushes around a boulder. Scientists came up with the name “magnetosphere” for the windsock-shaped flow around the planet.

In the tail of this magnetosphere, way downstream from Earth, is where aurora researchers have long theorized that solar energy is changed into substorm energy, which then explodes Earthward by the process scientists call “magnetic reconnection.”

Akasofu always thought the magnetic reconnection theory was not applicable to the aurora. Based on his study of the aurora and satellite observations, he figures that there is not enough energy in the tail.

Tony Lui, who studies at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University, recently noticed a satellite observation that supports he and Akasofu’s hunch. They think the sun’s hot breath is stretching Earth’s magnetic field lines like a kid pulling back on a slingshot. When the field lines can no longer hold the stretching, they snap back toward the planet. In the process, electrons are separated and stream into Earth’s upper atmosphere. Those electrons bang into atoms of oxygen, which explode into swirling auroral substorms.

'Infinite scenes of glory'

Also evident to the pair is that this magical, substorm-causing process may occur about half as far from Earth as scientists thought. This news may not change your appreciation for aquamarine lights detonating in a cold, clear sky, but space physicists will debate it with passion.

Having released the idea, Akasofu is content to let others bat it around. In a career entering its sixth decade during which his own theories have been both embraced and disproven, Akasofu wonders if we will ever fully understand the aurora. One of his favorite quotes regarding the mystery of it all is from Charles Hall, an arctic explorer of the 19th century, who, pondering lights in the sky, wrote in 1864: “Who but God can conceive such infinite scenes of glory?”

Ned Rozell is a science writer with the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Geophysical Institute. Used with permission.