The Aurora Seen Around The World

Think back to St. Patrick’s Day. Do you remember what you were doing? Hopefully you were wearing something green. And, hopefully, you didn’t leave anything green in the gutter behind the bar (e.g. undigested lunch or beverages or a mixture of the two). If you did, we don’t want to hear about it. It’s unpleasant enough that you had to read that and have that image in your mind. Apologies if you are eating.

If your mind was lucid enough that night, or the following night, did you remember to look up to the northern sky? Or, right above you, if you live far enough north? (Swap “north” for “south” if you live in the Southern Hemisphere. Everything is backwards there.) Was it a clear night?

If you answered “no” to the first two questions and “yes” to the third question, you missed out on an opportunity to see something green in the sky – one of the great atmospheric wonders of the world: the aurora. If you answered “yes” then “no”, tough luck. The lower atmosphere does not always cooperate with the upper atmosphere. If you answered “yes” on everything and still didn’t see the aurora, then you need to move closer to your nearest magnetic pole. Or, away from light pollution. (Although, truth be told, it is possible to live too far north or south to see the aurora. But, not many people live there. Those who do rarely have to worry about light pollution.)

If you forgot to look up at the night sky on 17-18 March 2015, you have no excuse. The media was hyping the heck out of it. That link is just one example of media predictions of the aurora being visible as far south as Dallas and Atlanta. While I couldn’t find any photographic evidence that that actually happened, there were people as far south as Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey that saw the aurora. In the other hemisphere – the backwards, upside-down one – the aurora was seen as far north as Australia and New Zealand, which is a relatively rare occurrence for them. And there are no shortage of pictures and videos if you want proof: pictures, more pictures, even more pictures, video and pictures, video, and a couple more short videos here, here and here.

Now, we already know that VIIRS can see the aurora. We’ve covered both the aurora borealis and aurora australis before. This time, we’ll take a look at both at the same time – not literally, of course! – since the Day/Night Band viewed the aurora (borealis and australis) on every orbit for an entire 24 hour period, during which time it covered every part of the Earth. So, follow along as VIIRS circled the globe in every sense of the word during this event.

First, we start with the aurora australis over the South Pacific, south of Pitcairn Island, at 10:15 UTC on 17 March 2015. We then proceed westward, ending over the South Pacific, south of Easter Island at 08:16 UTC on 18 March 2015. Click on each image in the gallery to see the medium resolution version. Above each of those images is a link containing the dimensions of the high resolution version. Click on that to see the full resolution.

Notice how much variability there is in the spatial extent and shape of the aurora from one orbit to the next. Everything is represented, from diffuse splotches to well-defined ribbons (which are technical terms, of course, wink, wink). You can see just how close the aurora was to being directly over Australia and New Zealand. And, if you looked at the high resolution versions of all the images (which are very large), you might have seen this:

VIIRS DNB image of the aurora australis, 18:39 UTC 17 March 2015

VIIRS DNB image of the aurora australis, 18:39 UTC 17 March 2015.

Just below center, the aurora is illuminating gravity waves forced by Heard Island. The aurora is also directly overhead of it’s “twin”, “Desolation Island” (aka Îles Kerguelen, upper-right corner right at the edge of the swath), although it looks too cloudy for the scientists and penguins living there to see it. (How many more Remote Islands can I mention that I’ve featured before?)

Now, I’m a sucker for animations, so I thought I’d combine all of these images into one and here it is (you can click on it to see the full-resolution version):

Animation of VIIRS DNB images of the aurora australis, 17-18 March 2015

Animation of VIIRS DNB images of the aurora australis, 17-18 March 2015.

Here, it is easier to notice that the aurora is much further north (away from the South Pole) near Australia and New Zealand and further south (closer to the pole) near South America. This is proof that the geomagnetic pole does not coincide with the geographic pole. This also puts the southern tips of Chile and Argentina at a disadvantage when it comes to seeing the aurora, compared to Australia and New Zealand.

Now, repeat everything for the aurora borealis – beginning over central Canada (07:57 UTC 17 March 2015) and ending there ~24 hours later (07:40 UTC 18 March 2015):

Basically, if you were anywhere in Siberia where there were no clouds, you could have seen the aurora. (For those who are not impressed, Siberia is a big area.) Did you see the aurora directly over North Dakota? (I showed a video of that above.) Did you notice it was mostly south of Anchorage, Alaska? (Typically, it’s over Fairbanks.) It was pretty close to Moscow and Scotland, also. But, what about the sightings in Ohio, New Jersey, and Germany? It doesn’t look like the aurora was close to those places…

For one, the aurora doesn’t have to be overhead to see it. Depending on the circumstances (e.g. auroral activity, atmospheric visibility, light pollution, etc.), you can be 5 degrees or more of latitude away and it will be visible. Second, these are single snapshots of an aurora that is constantly moving. (We already know the aurora can move pretty fast.) It may have been closer to these places when VIIRS wasn’t there to see it.

Lastly, here’s an animation of the above images, moving in the proper clockwise direction, unlike in that backwards, upside-down hemisphere:

Animation of VIIRS DNB images of the aurora borealis, 17-18 March 2015

Animation of VIIRS DNB images of the aurora borealis, 17-18 March 2015.

If you want to know more about what causes the aurora, watch this video. If you want to know why auroras appear in different colors, read this. If you want to know why aboriginal Australians viewed the aurora as an omen of fire, blood, death and punishment, and why various Native American tribes viewed the aurora as dancing spirits that were happy, well, you have a lot more reading to do: link, link and link.

Remote Islands, part III: Îles Kerguelen and Heard Island


At 10 o’clock the Captain was walking on deck and saw what he supposed to be an immense iceberg. … the atmosphere was hazy, and then a heavy snow squall came up which shut it out entirely from our view. Not long after the sun shone again, and I went up again and with the glass, tried to get an outline of it to sketch its form. The sun seemed so dazzling on the water, and the tops of the apparent icebergs covered with snow; the outline was very indistinct. We were all the time nearing the object and on looking again the Captain pronounced it to be land. The Island is not laid down on the chart, neither is it in the Epitome, so we are perhaps the discoverers, … I think it must be a twin to Desolation Island, it is certainly a frigid looking place.

VIIRS false color composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 09:16 UTC 27 October 2012

VIIRS false color composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03, taken 09:16 UTC 27 October 2012

The text above was the journal entry of Isabel Heard, wife of the American Captain John Heard, on 25 November 1853. The couple was en route from Boston, Massachusetts to Melbourne, Australia (a long time to spend in a boat) and the land they spotted became known as Heard Island. It should be noted that “Desolation Island” refers to Îles Kerguelen, which has its own unique story of discovery.

Kerguelen Island was discovered in 1772 by Yves-Joseph de Kerguelen de Trémarec, a French navigator commissioned by King Louis XV to discover the unknown continent in the Southern Hemisphere that he believed to be necessary to balance the globe. (Look at a globe or map of the world and notice that most of the land area is in the Northern Hemisphere.) Kerguelen himself never set foot on the island, but he told his king the island was inhabited and full of forests, fruits and untold riches. He called it “La France Australe” (Southern France). Captain Cook actually did land on the island a few years later and named it Desolation Island because it had none of that stuff, and King Louis XV imprisoned Kerguelen after his lie was discovered. Oops.

Îles Kerguelen, made up of the main island (Kerguelen to us, La Grande Terre to the French) and the many small surrounding islands are part of the French Southern and Antarctic Lands (Terres Australes et Antarctiques Françaises or TAAF). Heard Island is part of the Australian territory of Heard Island and McDonald Islands (HIMI).

These islands are in the “Roaring Forties” and “Furious Fifties”, the region of the Southern Ocean (southern Indian Ocean in this case) between 40 °S and 60 °S latitude. Get out your globe or world map once again and notice that there is very little land in this latitude range. This region is where strong, persistent westerly winds circle the globe. With no land in the way, there isn’t much to disturb this flow. The high winds almost always from the same direction create huge waves of 10 m (33 ft) or more. (Now imagine being John or Isabel Heard. Well, actually, if you suffer from sea-sickness you probably shouldn’t imagine it.) The cold winds flow over the relatively warmer waters of the ocean, forming persistent cloudiness. If you zoom in on the image above (click on the image, then on the “1893×1452” link below the banner for full resolution) you can see quite a bit of structure in the resulting “cloud streets“.

The persistent cloudiness makes Kerguelen and Heard Island a rare sight from any satellite. We can see them here because the flow is stable and the islands are producing the equivalent of a “rain shadow” on the clouds. (It’s tempting to call it a “cloud shadow” but, since clouds actually do cast shadows, it would just confuse people.) If we zoom in on Kerguelen, this shows up more clearly:

VIIRS false-color RGB composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03 taken 09:16 UTC 27 October 2012

VIIRS false-color RGB composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03 taken 09:16 UTC 27 October 2012

Notice how all the clouds are piling up on the west (windward) side of Kerguelen, where the highest mountains, are located. (These mountains are covered with snow and glaciers, as the cyan color indicates.) Could that be the equivalent of a bow shock near 68 °E longitude where there is an apparent crack in the clouds? On the leeward side of the island, downwind of the mountains, the air is descending, which prevents clouds from forming. Kerguelen created a hole in the clouds by disrupting the flow.

Now, let’s zoom in on Heard Island:

VIIRS false-color RGB composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03 taken 09:16 UTC 27 October 2012

VIIRS false-color RGB composite of channels I-01, I-02 and I-03 taken 09:16 UTC 27 October 2012

In addition to creating a hole in the clouds, Heard Island is creating all sorts of waves in the atmosphere. The ones you probably noticed first look like the wake created by a boat (and have the same basic cause). But, why do they start well out ahead of the island where the yellow arrow is pointing? Because those first waves are actually caused by the McDonald Islands (discovered by Capt. William McDonald in 1854). Even though the highest point on McDonald Island is only 186 m above mean sea level (610 ft), it’s enough to disrupt the flow.

The highest point on Heard Island is Mawson Peak at 2745 m (9006 ft), which is actually the highest elevation in Australia. It is part of Big Ben, an active volcano that last erupted in 2008. This peak is creating a series of lenticular clouds in the above image. A patch of cirrus clouds also exists downwind of Heard Island (the more cyan colored clouds), although it is not clear if these clouds were formed by the waves caused by Heard Island.

If you’re interested in visiting either of these islands, here are some other interesting facts: Kerguelen has a year-round population of ~100, almost all scientists. It has a permanent weather station and office maintained by Météo-France (France’s version of the National Weather Service), and the French version of NASA (CNES) has a station for launching rockets and monitoring satellites. Heard Island has no permanent residents. Every few years a scientific expedition sets out for the island to study the geology, biology, weather and climate of the island. The next one is planned for 2014 and is being called an “open source expedition”. There may still be time to join in if you’re looking for an adventure!