The Aurora Australis appears over Tasmania, but what causes it?
The sun releases particles of plasma (which we call “solar wind”) through sunspots and coronal holes. They strike the earth’s magnetosphere at hundreds of km/s. Contained within the plasma are electrons. When these electrons collide with the gases in Earth’s upper atmosphere it ‘excites’ them into a higher energy state. When they move back down to their natural energy state, they emit a photon of light, which becomes the aurora. Collisions with oxygen produce green and yellow auroras while collisions with nitrogen produce pink, red, purple and blue auroras.
The sun goes through an 11 year cycle of solar maximum and solar minimum. During solar maximum there are more solar flares, resulting in a higher frequency of stronger auroras. Hobart, Tasmania, is at 42 degrees south latitude and typically experiences the Aurora Australis at least several times or more a year, dependent upon the solar cycle. Tasmania has also got some of the darkest skies in the world, especially when facing south of Hobart, so we are blessed to have fantastic views of the Southern Lights.
This panorama photograph of the Aurora Australis was taken from Seven Mile Beach, not far from the Hobart Airport.
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“The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.” (James 5:16-18)
I could hardly believe my eyes!
The X9 solar flare, which struck the earth on September 8, 2017, was the LARGEST solar flare in over a decade and the 14th largest in recorded history (since 1976). Auroras from this geomagnetic storm were photographed even as far south as Arkansas, USA!
Rain, hail or shine, I was on my way to photograph the Aurora Australis…and that’s basically what happened.
Tasmania had been lashed by 2 straight weeks of wild weather, including heaps of rain and hail. Unfortunately, the initial impact of the X9 flare struck in the middle of Tasmanian daylight hours. However, white knuckled aurora photographers around Tasmania still went out hours later, hoping to catch some reverberations of the short lived but glorious X flares.
After the X9 there was also an X1.3, and as I began to head out that night the X1 was beginning to make initial contact.
The only (major) trouble was, the closer I got to Seven Mile Beach, the location I selected to photograph the Aurora Australis from, the more the clouds began to build (and aurora photographers all over southern Tasmania lamented the same trouble all over social media).
As I was driving straight into the building clouds to meet a couple of friends, I remembered the Scripture verse James 5:16-18 (above).
Elijah was a mighty prophet of God, yet the Scripture says he was a man just like us. I took God at his Word and began to pray that he would part the clouds to reveal the aurora caused by this severe geomagnetic storm.
When I arrived at Seven Mile Beach there was 100% cloud cover with no end in sight over the Southern Ocean.
As it started to gently rain upon my two Christian friends and I, we huddled together and prayed, “God, we pray that you would please be gracious to us and stop the rain, part the clouds and give us an awesome aurora to photograph”.
Very soon after that prayer the rain let up, and I walked up the sand dunes to get a view toward the south again. The clouds seemed to be lightening and clearing! I took a test shot and, sure enough, there was green aurora starting to burst through the lightening clouds!
We earnestly prayed again, and miracle of miracles, the sky opened up and revealed a FANTASTIC display of the Southern Lights! I had never seen them so active, so high, so bright and so wide on the horizon as I did that night. It was MAGNIFICENT!
The aurora was rapidly pulsating, like a laser light show. I had never seen an aurora do that. Despite skepticism, yet amidst growing scientific evidence, my friends and I were also pretty certain we could hear this ultra-intense aurora, which sounded somewhat like clapping, thundering or crackling (interestingly, a few others around Tasmania also reported the same phenomena that night).
While aurora photographers around Tasmania continued to lament cloudy skies from all of their locations over social media, God parted the clouds above us so that we could behold and photograph this awesome aurora. Praise the Lord!!!
This experience strongly reminded me of when, after three and a half years without rain or dew, Elijah earnestly prayed and God sent a torrential downpour of rain (although we prayed God would do the exact opposite).
It encourages me that God truly hears our earnest prayers and answers them. It encourages me to pray and never give up, even when things look impossible from our earthly perspective.
Thank you, God, for blessing us with the opportunity to see one of the strongest auroral shows of the century.
“…Elijah climbed to the top of Carmel, bent down to the ground and put his face between his knees.
‘Go and look toward the sea,’ he told his servant. And he went up and looked.
‘There is nothing there,’ he said.
Seven times Elijah said, ‘Go back.’
The seventh time the servant reported, ‘A cloud as small as a man’s hand is rising from the sea.’…the sky grew black with clouds, the wind rose, a heavy rain came on…”
(1 Kings 18:42-45)
For the photographers reading this:
You might be amazed to learn that despite the full moon, the aurora was so bright that I shot at ISO 100 for much of the night. It was so bright that I could shoot a 1 second exposure at ISO 800 on f/1.8. That is crazy! This series of shots (which were stitched into a panorama) were 4 second exposure, f/1.8 at ISO 400. The moon was so bright it illuminated the sand dunes in the foreground as if it were nearly daytime. Thankfully the moon was mostly at our backs the whole night and sometimes obscured by cloud.