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Space Weather and Predicting the Aurora

This week the space weather forecast was incredibly certain regarding a very strong display of the aurora, not just here in Tasmania but most likely in the southern states of mainland Australia too. A LOT of people got out to witness the spectacle only to see… well, very little at all.

Aurora Jan 9 2014 Mt Wellington

The above link is to a short (10 second) time lapse video I made from around 20 images, taken over a few minutes just before midnight on January 9 2014.

Aurora Australis Mt Wellington Jan 2014

Aurora Australis Mt Wellington Jan 2014

What happened on January 9 2014?

First of all, what happened prior to January 9 is the important question. On January 7, 2014 a massive sunspot on the sun erupted with a major flare which reached X1.2 in intensity. The location of the flare was right in the middle of the side of the sun facing the earth, so if a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) had accompanied the flare then we on earth could be in for a great display of aurorae. In general it takes at least a few hours or half a day for the data to be analysed, but lo and behold it turned out that a CME had been detected, so the alerts started to spread around the interweb that aurorae should be visible on Thursday January 9 2014.

No aurora on Jan 9 2014. Space weather is a particularly difficult thing to predict!

No aurora on Jan 9 2014. Space weather is a particularly difficult thing to predict!

Predicting Space Weather

If you’re the kind of person that gets grumpy when the weatherman cant even get the weather forecast right for your weekend BBQ then you ought to spare a thought for those in charge of predicting space weather. While most aurora forecasts come with more terms and conditions than your typical Jetstar airfare, the hopes were high for this particular event. In Tasmania, hardy photographer types shot off to all corners of the island, Freycinet, Cradle Mountain, the Tessellated Pavements and the South West just to name a few.

Self portrait. Aurora chasing on Mt Wellington, Jan 9 2014

Self portrait. Aurora chasing on Mt Wellington, Jan 9 2014

I decided to try Mt Wellington, and as it turned out, so too did dozens and perhaps hundreds of others. The aurora really has had a mesmerising effect on people (myself included!) and it was quite remarkable to see so many people up high for the show. It is a shame it didn’t appear, as the tiny little beams I almost accidentally caught at midnight were simply not visible to the naked eye. The CME which was due to hit late afternoon Jan 9 (Tasmanian time) did not hit until 6:30am the following morning and was far weaker than anticipated. The little pink beams that I captured must have been due to something else altogether.

For more of my Tasmanian aurora photos from the past 18 months click through to my Aurora Australis index page.

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About Luke

Luke O'Brien runs a stall at Hobart's popular Salamanca Market every Saturday where his prints and cards are available for purchase. Follow Luke's photographic adventures on Twitter at @lukeobrienphoto, at his Facebook page or by subscribing to his email newsletter.