Auroral Storm over Tombstone Mountain
On St. Patrick’s Day, 2015, my friend Gordon Maclean and I were camped at Talus Lake, in Tombstone Territorial Park, at latitude 64° north, 50 miles north of Dawson City, Yukon Territory. We had come to photograph the aurora, and we were about to get incredibly lucky.
Auroras are most commonly seen within the auroral zones, doughnut-shaped regions of the Earth roughly centered on the magnetic poles. According to Neil Davis, a geophysicist who spent much of his career studying the aurora, the odds of seeing the northern lights on a clear, dark night if you are standing in the center of an auroral zone are 100 percent. Tombstone Territorial Park is only 65 miles south of that line, which is why Gordon and I had flown from Denver to Dawson City, then chartered a helicopter and flown into the park the day before.
At noon on St. Patrick’s Day a vicious windstorm began battering our ancient tent. Frantically we reinforced the tent’s already well-anchored guy lines, then huddled inside the tent for hours, bracing the weakening tent against the hammer blows of the gusts. Unknown to us at the time, one of the tent poles bent but did not break. Had it snapped, it would have shredded the tent walls and left us without shelter.
Toward sunset the windstorm eased, and we emerged to assess the damage. The sky began to clear. Then the biggest geomagnetic storm since 2004 hit the Earth. The AP index, a measure of geomagnetic activity, hit 108—a level reached on only 0.4 percent of the nights since 1932. The auroras that night were simply unbelievable. They filled the sky in all directions with astonishingly pure shades of green and red. This image captured the night’s most vivid red auroras, which appeared in cascading curtains over Tombstone Mountain, to the west down the valley of the Tombstone River. The temperature dropped to 0° F, but it felt mild compared to the night before, when it had plunged to -27° F. We shot the aurora until after 3 a.m. At last the light show faded. We were shaking our heads in disbelief when we climbed back into the tent and fired up the stove to make a hot meal. Even then, knowing nothing about the historic magnitude of the geomagnetic storm we had just witnessed, we knew we were in the midst of the photo shoot of a lifetime.
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