Alaska: Dancing with the stars

By Paul Rush

Paul Rush steps out for a late night rendezvous with the cosmos.

The Aurora Borealis. Photo / Thinkstock
The Aurora Borealis. Photo / Thinkstock

I'm watching a distant glow on the horizon, which slowly turns into an ethereal curtain of light. The heavens open up in a fusion of faintly glowing colours and I can discern greens, yellows, blues and purples; first appearing then fading away.

Strangely, the pattern of light is advancing. It gains momentum and comes on faster and faster, the colours appearing to merge and then separate. Now there is amber and orange in the pattern. The entire spectrum of colour can be discerned, or is it imagined, as the mysterious lights are constantly changing?

The Aurora Borealis now possesses a definite form, which can only be described as a folded curtain- an immense curtain of faint glowing lights, stretching far up into space and dancing with the stars. Remarkably, it never stops moving. The curtain is dancing and at the same time, shimmering - faintly flickering on and off like a dimmer control on electric lighting. For an instant I feel that I'm dancing within the curtain - it seems to envelope me.

The play of light appears to be miraculously choreographed by some unseen hand. The dancing seems to follow a pattern, but then suddenly changes. It is unfathomable but leaves me with the warm fuzzy feeling that I am at this moment a part of a benign and limitless universe.

It was 1am on a crisp, clear, intensely cold night when the call came. 'Wake up, the show is about to begin.' I don't want to miss Fairbank's best, brightest and highest nightly attraction - the biggest pyrotechnics show on Earth.

I've already been asked the question, 'have you seen the lights?' several times, so I'm determined to be there at 2am to catch the main event. After all, Mid-September in Fairbanks, Alaska, is when the locals say the lights are guaranteed to knock your socks off, and this is the undisputed aurora borealis viewing capital of the world.

A short drive to Eagle Summit above the city, provides the world's best view of the Aurora Borealis (Dawn of the North) also known as the Northern Lights. The phenomenon takes place between 80km and 640km above the North Pole. It is a mirror image of the Aurora Australis, which occurs over the South Pole but this is viewed in New Zealand and Australia much less frequently than its northern counterpart.

The northern city of Fairbanks is 'one of a kind,' even for Alaska. It is uniquely sited, just 240km below the Arctic Circle and enjoys twenty-three hours of daylight at the summer solstice. How does a game of baseball sound at 11pm?

Fairbanks attractions include: quaint paddle wheelers on the Yukon River, float planes as the standard mode of transport, dog-sled teams that mush through heavy winter snows and a spirit of adventure that befits the 'Land of the Midnight Sun.' If the locals want a bit of excitement in the winter, all they have to do is go outside when it's 50°C below, toss boiling water up in the air and hear it vaporise with a bang.

This vibrant city hosts the World Ice Art Championships, dog-sled races and a host of winter sports activities. From the University Campus there is a great view of Mount McKinley, North America's highest peak, towering over Denali National Park. Summer in the park allows visitors to view 'The Big Five' animals in their natural habitat - bear, moose, elk, caribou and Dall sheep.

Not too any years ago, scientists believed that auroras were the result of sunlight reflecting off the polar ice or ice crystals in the atmosphere. Today we know auroras are a solar-powered light show operating in a similar way to neon signs. The dancing lights are produced by electrical discharges within the rarefied air of the upper atmosphere, just like the vacuum in a neon tube.

The source of the electrical energy is our sun, which is quietly boiling away with surface temperatures measured in millions of degrees Celsius. Explosive collisions occur between gas molecules, free electrons and protons. These collisions throw out solar flares, as the sun rotates, carrying charged particles into the earth's magnetic field.

Surprisingly, the North and South poles are the weakest part of our magnetic field. Some of these long distance travellers enter the earth's atmosphere at the poles and collide with local particles and these impacts emit the light that we see as dancing auroras.

Auroral colours are created in a similar way to our colour television images. In the TV picture tube, a beam of electrons strikes the screen through electric and magnetic fields, making it glow in colours that vary with the phosphor coating on the screen.

The auroral electrons follow the earth's magnetic lines and each gas glows with a specific colour. The most common yellow-green colour comes from oxygen atoms at 100kms and red comes from oxygen at 320kms. Blue light originates from ionised nitrogen molecules and purple colours from neutral nitrogen.

As daylight approaches the radiance slowly fades away, leaving a pale green tinge through the sky. Patches of light develop, blink on and off like the pulse of a heart. Once the sun peeps over the horizon the aurora fades out completely - it's siesta time.

This is the signal for avid aurora watchers to call it a night and catch up with sleep, which I'm more than ready for. Inevitably, my dreams focus on weird shapes, ghostly apparitions and cosmic plasma streams.

The dreams might be imaginary, but there's is absolute reality in the Aurora Borealis. It is a vision of ineffable beauty and provides the unforgettable experience of dancing with the stars.


Getting to Fairbanks

By Air: Alaska Airlines flies regular services from Los Angeles and San Francisco.
By Rail: There is a daily train service from Anchorage to Fairbanks.
By Road: Drive from Anchorage on the Glen Highway and the Parks Highway.


Adventure World, Auckland
Phone: (09) 524 5118

Paul Rush travelled to Fairbanks with assistance from Adventure World and Anderson's Vacations.

- NZ Herald

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