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March 27, 2017 Auroras

Kelliher, MN

A corotating interaction region (CIR) ahead of a high speed stream of solar wind impacted Earth's magnetosphere during the evening.  Bz was dropping south and hanging out around -11 nT, probably the best solar wind conditions of the whole year for seeing auroras.  However, the skies were covered in a thin layer of mid-level clouds.  For a little bit after sunset, I had seen stars pop out, but the clouds had thickened, and the lights would not be visible for me at home.  It was time to drive northwest where I had the closest opportunity to escape the cloud deck, but fog was forming wherever the skies were clear, so there was a relatively narrow southwest-northeast band where the aurora visibility would be good.

I got through Deer River and continued northwest on Highway 46, otherwise known as the avenue of pines.  This densely forested road did not provide a great opportunity to check the northern sky. I used my navigation app to find a quieter county road that led into nearby farmland, and there I stopped to check if I had a chance of driving out from underneath the clouds.  If I did not see clearing now, I would probably have to turn around because it would be too far away. 

Nice Auroras
Northern lights peek through slivers of clearing in the mid level cloud deck.

There were only a few slivers of clearing, but the far northern horizon appeared to be mostly clear, so onward I went. It looked like good visibility was within my range for the evening. Most likely, I would have to head to Northome or just a little beyond. I hopped back in the car, returned back to 46, and resumed my northwestward drive.

As I drove past various small holes in the clouds, I could see the northern edge of the lights shining through. I could tell that this, indeed, was a pretty good show. As I continued north, those clearings would fade behind me as the lights no longer illuminated them. Just past Alvwood, however, there must have been an auroral substorm because the entire northern sky brightened up, despite the fact that it was still mostly cloudy. At this time of night (now very early Monday morning), there's almost no traffic, and it's quiet enough that you can hear cars coming for miles. I had a chance to stop on the shoulder and take a couple pictures.

Nice Auroras
Between Alvwood and Northome, the northern sky lit up.

My first shots were a little overexposed. Indeed, the lights were pretty bright. I changed the shutter speed a bit and got a better exposure. Somehow, I like the first shot because it says something about how bright the lights were.

Nice Auroras
A much better shutter speed.

After only a small number of shots, the lights of an approaching car suddenly illuminated a curve in the road just to my south. I threw my tripod and camera in the car, put the pedal down, and accelerated to highway speed before it got close to me. The clearing did not look much closer than it had just north of Deer River. I would have to drive north of Northome.

After a few miles, the car caught up to me, making it difficult to see the location of clearing ahead of me.  I pulled out at a county road to let the car by and resumed my slower trek.  On the north side of Northome, Highway 46 ends, and I had to turn west on to U.S. 71/MN Highway 1 to continue northward on MN Highway 72. I continued past Kelliher and decided I had gone far enough. I could have gone farther, but I wanted to have a buffer in my electric range to make it back home, I could see the lights to the north pretty well, and the clouds above me were really thin and getting thinner. I found a good pullout spot and tucked my car as far back in the brush as I could so as to avoid attracting the attention of any passing vehicles. About four or five drove by in the 1.5 hours I was there. I started shooting, and as my eyes adjusted, I could see that the lights had spread overhead and had gotten about 10 or 20 degrees into the southern sky.

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My first shots north of Kelliher. I tried to capture the light reflection in the puddles in front of me, but that attempt did not bear fruit.
Nice Auroras
When the auroras are filling most of the sky, it's better the skip most of the foreground and focus on the lights.
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I can't remember if I had a second tripod with me or not. Whatever the case may have been, the top of the car worked fine for this.
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The highways are quiet at this time of night. The water in the ditch to my left reflected a bit of the light.
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Same shot at 16mm.

I shot until about 2:30 AM, but I had more than an hour drive back home. The drive was worthwhile because this ended up being the brightest event of 2017 so far. With the solar cycle now approaching minimum, this could be the best we'll see in 2017, but we won't know until the year is over.

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VIIRS imagery from just before the time I started shooting north of Kelliher.  The southern edge of the auroras extended to my latitude.
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VIIRs imagery taken about 30 minutes after I arrived back home. Had the skies been clear, the lights would have been really bright.
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A look at the coronal hole that brought about these auroras.

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