Aurora borealis over the Alaska Highway

When aurora-watchers dream about their perfect world, one thing that often comes up is having the aurora show up at reasonable hours of the night instead of 2-3 am. Last night, that came true in a dramatic fashion.

Sunset last night, the day before the shortest day of the year, was at 3:48. A few minutes after that, I noticed that both of the aurora reporting sites I use were calling for a very good night, probably starting as soon as it got dark. At 5:26, I posted on the Yukon Aurora Alert page on Facebook that the lights were already visible to the north, even though the sky was still quite light.

Aurora borealis reports for December 20, 2015
As soon as I could get my gear together and get dressed for the -21°C (-6°F) temperature, I was on the road. A few minutes after 6:00, I started shooting from the ridge above the Yukon River Bridge on the Alaska Highway a few miles east of us. There’s a viewing deck there but the view of the sky, and of the highway in both directions, is better below it. Being this early in the evening, I was hoping to be able to get lots of vehicles lights, something that takes a lot of patience when you’re shooting at 02:00! This is the view towards Whitehorse. I shot it with a 15-second exposure at ISO 800, but the image was a bit bright and I had to darken it in the computer.

Aurora borealis over the Yukon River Bridge on the Alaska Highway
Looking down the Alaska Highway to the east. Having the moon at about 75% full presents both lighting challenges (lens flare and washing out the aurora, primarily) and lighting opportunities (lighting the foregrounds). I had now switched to 8-second exposures at ISO 800.

Aurora borealis over the Alaska Highway
There was lots of movement in the aurora, and I shot almost constantly.

Aurora borealis over the Alaska Highway

Aurora borealis over the Alaska Highway

Aurora borealis over the Alaska Highway
Looking back over the bridge again at 6:25, with the light of a passing jet in the upper left, and vehicles travelling in both directions on the furthest part of the highway.

Aurora borealis over the Yukon River Bridge on the Alaska Highway
Tail lights are usually much better than headlights 🙂

Aurora borealis over the Alaska Highway
A selfie in front of the viewing deck. For normal aurora shooting, I use a 2-second shutter delay, just enough to prevent me from causing any movement. When I want to get into the shot as in this photo, I use an 8-second delay.

Aurora borealis over the Alaska Highway
At 6:45, I decided to change shooting locations, and drove 15 minutes in towards the city, to another ridge above the highway. The movement and patterns were still quite wonderful to the north when I arrived, but had disappeared to the east, the direction I wanted them. Fussy, fussy!

Aurora borealis over the Alaska Highway
The Alaska Highway runs through the broad valley of the Yukon River around Whitehorse, with Marsh Lake to the east just past the narrowing at the lower right of the photo.

Aurora borealis over the Alaska Highway at Whitehorse

The photo above was the last one I shot. The aurora faded, and although I stopped a couple of times as I drove home for brief flashes of light, it didn’t look like the show would return. You never know, though – there’s just no pattern for what might happen. I was back with the family by about 7:30, much to Cathy’s surprise. And mine – I had expected an all-nighter.

At about 8:45, though, the aurora made a spectacular return, and I dashed out to the deck wearing pyjamas and flip-flops to get a few shots (yes, outside in pyjamas and flip-flops at -21°C 🙂 ).

Aurora borealis over the Alaska Highway
I thought about going out in the car again, but after about 15 minutes the show ended as abruptly as it had started. I checked a few times from bed, but never saw any more aurora before the sky clouded over about 11:00 pm.

Aurora borealis over the Alaska Highway
By the looks of our current weather forecast, that may have been our final Northern Lights show of 2015. Clearer skies are being forecast to the north and west of Whitehorse, though, so despite the very cold temperatures ahead, a road trip just might be in the offing yet.


Whitehorse weather forecast



Comments

Aurora borealis over the Alaska Highway — 4 Comments

  1. great pics as always, thanks much for sharing. I have seen some displays on the 24 hr archived Alaska DOT road cams already…always cool.

  2. Hi Murray, your third picture on this blog if looked at sideways looks very much like a horse’s head. What auroras and imagination can do. Great pictures and thank you so much for sharing. Maureen

  3. Wow Murray! You got some awesome shots! I remember that night well, as the display would have been fantastic over Winnipeg, but it was cloudy overhead- darn it! Aurora borealis always makes my heart smile!