Northern Lights

The Northern Lights seen from Jokijärvi, Finland.

Labor Day weekend could have been special this year. Instead it was just great. Great, because every year a host of families gathers in West Burke for three days to sit around a fire, ride bikes and tent out under the stars. Special because this year the Northern Lights were supposed to show up too. And I haven’t seen them in Vermont since 1992.

But while kids ran around like shooting stars under a clear, black sky, the Aurora Borealis failed to make a showing. Given what our tribe had seen on Memorial Day weekend, it was a letdown. We’d hoped to cleanse ourselves from what I’d call an astral pain: At 11 p.m. on May 25 a streak of, it seemed, hundreds of low-level lights had ripped beneath the Milky Way. So apocalyptic was our experience that parents were yelling for children, and teenagers were Googling like mad to find out what was the matter. I literally fell over in my chair. Is this what night has become? I gotta start staying up later.

“Says here Elon Musk just launched 60 satellites at once,” somebody barked across the fire. But, beyond a clip here and there on the web, there was a veritable black hole of reliable reportage.

It wasn’t until May 29 that I was able to find a decent piece online. National Geographic published a story titled “Will Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites harm astronomy? Here’s what we know.

The lead sentence confirmed my most light-polluted fears: “If SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has his way, Earth’s skies will soon be spangled with about 12,000 false stars — the speeding, reflecting gleams from a mega-constellation of telecommunications satellites collectively called Starlink.”

Between the threat of the Starlinks showing up everywhere and the Northern Lights not at all, I was in search of clarity after unpacking our Labor Day camping gear. So, I called Mark Breen at the Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium in St. Johnsbury where he’s the senior meteorologist and director and from where he records his weather forecasts for VPR when he draws the short straw.

“There has been certainly some concern expressed from the astronomical community in general,” Breen said of the SpaceX project, “just because you could see them. Imagine an observatory trying to take an image of some deep space object that requires hours of a camera that’s open to the sky. Obviously if a train of satellites goes through, (it could) spoil the picture and potentially some research.”

Yikes!

Breen has done some digging on this too and, like me, he’s surprised at the lack of press the idea of 12,000 satellites might stir up.

Then I share with Breen my crazy theory: The reason there’s very little interest from the press and public on this issue is, more and more, they’re concentrated in urban environments where light pollution means the night sky isn’t visible at all. And, where, increasingly, kids and adults in the country are looking down at screens, not up at the sky. Not outdoors. Crazy?

“Oh, no, no,” Breen says. “Quite a few years ago now we installed a new system for our planetarium and we’re looking at this new star field that was being produced and it didn’t seem as sharp and realistic (to us in St. J). But it was created by people who live in places that have light pollution.

“So, they’re not used to the fact that here we see really dark skies and this preponderance of stars out there and they didn’t. They didn’t understand that. I agree that, as fewer people live in rural areas, fewer people have an idea what the sky really looks like.”

Well, that stinks. So, fast forward to Labor Day weekend when we were hoping that our camping trip would give us the opportunity to be out under the stars until late at night. None of us made it until 3 a.m., which the forecast had said could be peak Aurora. Good thing, too, because nothing happened.

According to Breen, we are on the southern edge of where you could at least reasonably expect to see Northern Lights. And, thanks to better imagery both here on Earth through telescopes and from satellites, we can monitor the surface of the sun. It’s that activity that creates the Northern Lights, giving folks like Breen the ability to reasonably predict when the phenomenon might occur.

Back in my high school days, I remember a light show from my home in Cambridge so vividly blue and yellow that I can still remember exactly where I was standing. Maybe I’ve seen traces since, but that’s all. Has the Aurora Borealis become less common in Vermont since then?

“In terms of the frequency of displays, that’s definitely declined and that has to do with the decline in solar energy,” Breen admits. “The sun has been less active during the past 15-20 years. When I say the sun is active or not active, (I’m talking about) things like sunspots and solar flares and those types of sun activity.”

He went on to explain that it’s these flares and sunspots that send out the energetic particles that in turn create the Aurora we see. Or don’t.

And when the sun is less active and we see fewer of them, it’s in part a natural cycle of approximately 11 years: Every 11 years it reaches a minimum and every 11 years a maximum.

But, there’s more. Sun activity, even at its peaks, has been much lower over these past two cycles. “We don’t exactly know why that is, other than it is,” Breen goes on. “So Northern Lights, especially seen from farther away from the Arctic regions, have been fewer over the past couple of decades.”

Well, that’s depressing. With the possible exception that, unlike everything else in our natural world, humans haven’t actually screwed this up.

Breen had a lot more to say, all way over my head. Stuff about the sun’s coronal hole activity and its relation to long-term influence on the Northern Lights we might see here in northern Vermont. Magnetic fields this and energetic particles that.

As for when we’ll have another shot at celestial bliss? Laughs Breen, “I have a hard enough time forecasting the weather,” before launching into more high-level sciency stuff, then finally adding that we might have a shot between Sept. 25 and 28.

As for when SpaceX will complete that Starlink project? I’m still waiting on a call back from Elon Musk’s office.


Adam Howard writes and stargazes from his home in Cambridge, Vt.

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