You would have thought it was a sunset, the way the cars were lined up at Peterson Park facing Lake Michigan. But it was a different kind of nature's spectacle: the Northern Lights.
I knew from early in the day that the potential for auroras was going to be strong because on one of the three aurora websites that I check twice daily, I saw from the Space Weather Prediction Center that we were in the midst of a G-4 level severe geomagnetic storm. It turned out that it was the strongest storm thus far in solar cycle 24, which began January 4, 2008.
The Kp index was another indicator that the opportunity for viewing and photographing auroras was going to be high. All day the index was between seven and eight and I had never seen it above six. The Aurora Forecast website even crashed because it couldn't keep up with the extreme number of visitors curious about solar activity.
I headed out around 9:30 pm to see for myself what was going on in the sky. I was prepared to wait because auroras typically appear between 10 pm and 2 am. On my way to Peterson Park, I could see the clear starry night through my moonroof.
I wasn't prepared, however, for the raw beauty I was about to see as I stepped out of my car into the cold night. Nearly the whole Western sky was ablaze with huge swaths of white that are the indicator that auroras are present. I knew that this was going to be an exciting photo shoot and the skies did not disappoint.
The auroral colors were a vibrant mix of green and magenta. Among the shapes, there were the traditional auroral arcs; there were also vertical auroral curtains slicing through the arcs. It was truly an exciting night for photography! But here's more good news: we continue to be under assault by a moderate, G-2 level magnetic storm. The Kp index at press time is at 6. We just may get to view auroras a second night in a row.