Alaska > Fairbanks and the Aurora Borealis

[To catch up with the other stories in this Alaska Series, please CLICK HERE.]

This is downtown Fairbanks, the largest city in the interior of Alaska, named after a senator from Indiana who later became the vice president under Theodore Roosevelt. Founded in 1901, by road it is 360 miles from Anchorage. From here there’s a very long road going to the northern Arctic coast of Alaska, but only open in summer. 

With an urban population of 32,000, Fairbanks was founded in 1902 during the gold rush, and started as a trading post along the Tanana River.

The town centre is rather small, and spacious residences creep into downtown area, especially across Chena river, a tributary of the much bigger Tanana river.

Autumn is in full swing in mid-September.

And we are enjoying the spectacular colours in Griffin Park.

There is also the Alaska Siberia World War II Memorial to recognise the brave American airmen who transported war planes from the US to the battlefronts in Russia, via Alaska and Siberia. In all they flew nearly 8,000 planes in adverse flying conditions, crashing 177 of them along the way.

The park also showcases an original settlers’ log cabin from the early 1900s.

We proceed to the nearby Pioneer Park to get to know more about these original early log cabins and other stuff.

Beautiful original shop row from the early 1900s.

This cabin once belonged to one E.H. Mack, a true pioneer.

This building was built in 1906, as a hotel and bath house.

The reason why the place looks deserted is because businesses have ceased for the season, as it is the onset of cold weather. Opening on Memorial Day? That’s more than eight months away. What a long break!

But never mind, there is still a lot of old hardware to gawk at, even though almost all activities have been halted for the season.

There’s the Denali Car aka Harding Car, used by President Warren G. Harding when he came to Alaska in 1923 to officiate the Alaskan Railroad.

Also the famous sternwheeler (a type of paddle steamer) SS Nenana, aka Queen of the Yukon, which plied Tanana and Yukon rivers in the 1930s till the 50s. It carried both passengers and cargo along the rivers.

We passed by a farmer’s market and decided to have a look.

This looks promising — need to stock up on vegies and fruits too.

A tidy market with everything nicely-packed and displayed. 

Didn’t know Brussels sprouts grow on stalks till I see these!

By the way it’s $5 per stalk, one of my favourite vegies.

If only I could try these exotic sausages …

The Alaskan gent has been to Sarawak a few times and his call of ‘madu asli’ attracted our attention, obviously. Needless to say, being the suckers that we are, we buy the stuff. Then I thought … Alaskan honey, really?

We were looking for a famous place and soon found it — the University of Alaska Fairbanks or UAF, the oldest in Alaska.

A  scenic campus they have on high grounds, overlooking a beautiful valley. 

Flagship of the University of Alaska system, UAF was founded in 1917 — world famous for Arctic and geophysics research, on aurora especially.

The UAF Geophysical Institute, is well-known for space research. I’m curious about that huge dish pointing straight up, because you only get that for geostationary satellites, which is not the case here. It must be for shooting radiowaves straight into the sky to observe their deflections, thus giving clues on properties of the high atmosphere.

Nearby there’s an animal research station belonging to UAF.

Here, they have the world’s only captive herd of musk-oxen, for scientific research work. A truly Arctic mammal, found only in Greenland and Arctic Canada. Those guys may look like cute fluffy black balls now but they are huge, really.

And of course the reindeer too.

In North America it is called the caribou, this one a western Arctic subspecies.

We returned to our cosy cabin to cook dinner (with Brussels sprouts of course) and to rest. The plan is to leave at 10.00pm to go to a spot north of Fairbanks for some aurora-hunting. That’s why we are here, the aurora!

We are at a popular aurora-watching place, some 20 miles northeast of Fairbanks. It is just past midnight, and the clouds opened up for a wondrous aurora experience. Very cold at sub-zero temperatures, but definitely worth the outing!

We only have green ones, but the show has been fantastic. It is like huge green torchlights being shone in the heaven. Sometimes the aurora is like a dancing curtain, sometimes like a flowing river of light. Truly mesmerising!

The aurora happens when particles ejected from the Sun’s surface arrive at very high speed, and are funnelled into the north magnetic pole area by the Earth’s own magnetic field. The colours occur when these particles collide with molecules of the high atmosphere such as hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen.

Green colour is emitted when the solar particles hit oxygen molecules at the height of 100km to 200km. That’s the most common event, so we see most aurora as green.

Here we see tinges of crimson, which imply nitrogen molecules, at less than 100km high, are being hit by the solar particles.

A bit of crimson tinge here too.

Aurora can only be sighted if these three things occur at the same time — high-speed solar particles, good weather, dark sky. So you have to be very lucky indeed. Three years ago we went aurora-hunting in Tromsø in Arctic northern Norway — but bad weather spoilt the experience.

The patterns are unpredictable due to various factors, some still mysterious, that are at play.

Aurora tends to appear just before midnight and can extend till early morning, but then it depends on luck. It just repeatedly comes and goes, always to the north.

I love this snake-like pattern. It’s moving slowly, with the wavy part changing shape gradually, before slowly disappearing. Note the prominent Big Dipper constellation in the background.

Truly amazing display, this creation of god’s.

The greenish glow could be seen from far away, as we were driving to the site. We could feel it in the air without having actually seeing it. We know right away in the dark night, if we are going to get to see the aurorae itself. Some people say, aurora generates a faint buzzing sound. 

A truly majestic display by nature. You can easily get addicted to it, you just can’t get enough of it. So if you have the opportunity, please go chase the aurora, one of nature’s most magical shows. You won’t regret it for sure. 

~ THE END (09/15) ~

#alaskaseries

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4 thoughts on “Alaska > Fairbanks and the Aurora Borealis

    1. Any good camera would do, but you need a tripod and correct exposure time, which can be obtained by trial and error. Btw I use Olympus M10 Mk II, with kit lens and I placed it on the roof the car — not the best!

      Liked by 1 person

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