Northern lights dazzle stargazers - and more to come

Posted: Friday, February 11, 2000

The last few nights' clear skies have offered local sky-watchers a chance to view the aurora borealis. And if the weather continues to cooperate, it's going to get better.

Outstanding displays - if conditions are suitably clear - should fill the night skies between Feb. 25 and March 2, and again between March 23 and 31, said Syun Akasofu, director of the International Arctic Research Center in Fairbanks.

The key, as in an early Wednesday morning display, is the weather, said local stargazer Michael Orelove.

``In Juneau we have not had a lot of clear nights this winter,'' Orelove said. ``Actually northern lights are there all the time, because their three components are there all the time. They are made by the combination of the earth's magnetic field, the atmosphere and the solar wind. It's just that we can't see them during the daytime. We need dark nights that are clear.''

The aurora borealis often can be triggered by solar flares - bursts of radiation from the surface of the sun - and may precipitate faulty communication with satellites and other problems.

Roger Wetherell of the Coast Guard's public affairs office said he had had no reports of communication difficulties such as disruption of short-wave radios or aircraft communications from recent displays.

``The (aurora) forecast for Tuesday was for moderate displays, but (Wednesday's) display was pretty spectacular here,'' said Linda McGilvary of the Geodata Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Akasofu of the Arctic Research Center said displays in the Fairbanks area began around 3 a.m. Wednesday. Observers in Juneau described northern lights displays about 5 a.m.

Aurora borealis fanciers don't need to wait for a clear night to see the objects of their affections, Orelove said. The Marie Drake Planetarium, where he volunteers, is sponsoring free shows March 7 and 8 on that very subject.

A show suitable for 4- and 5-year-olds will be given from 7 to 7:30 p.m. March 7. The following evening, March 8, there will be an hour-long show for families at 7 p.m. At 8 p.m., an aurora show ``for more mature audiences'' is planned, Orelove said. All three shows will discuss how the aurora is created.

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