Real time footage of aurora shows them dancing and shimmering

By Phil Plait | January 28, 2012 10:56 pm

Photographer Alistair Chapman traveled to Tromso, Norway — 300 km north of the Arctic Circle — to capture video of the aurorae from the recent spate of solar storms. What he caught on camera is remarkable: shimmering, waving, dancing lights moving in real time!

[Make sure you set it to 720p; Chapman says higher-def footage is coming soon.]

That’s amazing. Aurorae video is generally done with time lapse to show the movement, which is usually slow. I’ve often wondered just how fast the movement really is; I always figured fluctuations in the solar particle density, speed, and magnetic fields would produce real-time changes in the lights, but I’d never seen anything like this! After a search of YouTube I actually found several more.

I know some people will think this is fake, and I had my skeptic hat on while watching it. Note that in most time lapse you can see the stars move; in this they don’t, indicating (unless it’s a complete fake) short periods of time during the filming. Given that, plus the existence of other video like it, I’m thinking this is real.

Mind you, the movement you’re seeing isn’t a physical motion. It’s not like solid curtains of material are flapping. The lights are caused by atoms in the upper atmosphere getting hit by subatomic particles blasted out by the Sun, caught by our Earth’s magnetic field, and funneled down into our air. These particles dump energy into the atoms, moving the electrons up in energy (called excitation). The electrons then jump back down, emitting light in the process (de-excitation). As I said in an earlier post, it’s like needing energy to jump up stairs, but releasing it as you jump down.

Different atoms have different energy levels for the electrons — think of it as more or less spacing vertically between steps in a staircase — so the energy emitted is different, resulting in different colors emitted. That’s why we see green, red, purple… they come mostly from oxygen and nitrogen in the air. So as the magnetic field fluctuates, the particles are sent shooting down in different places, giving the appearance of motion while the atoms themselves don’t move.

The physics is complex and interesting, but the beauty of these lights is, to use another term, magical. Not in the fantasy sense, but in the sense of the emotional response we have to them. They are simply breathtaking in these videos, and are a wonderful by-product of our tempestuous Sun.

Tip o’ the lens cap to sunspotter.


Related posts:

- Two lovely aurora time lapse videos
- Time lapse: The Aurora
- Water falls, moonbow shines, aurorae glow
- JAW DROPPING Space Station time lapse!

Comments (63)

  1. WJM

    I’ve seen ‘em like that. 1989, especially.

  2. Amazing. I’m from rural Canada and I have definitely seen many aurorae that dance like this, but never this beautiful or dramatic. Our planet is awesome!

  3. Bigfoot

    Stunning! I love how at first, the home in the foreground appears to be casting a giant shadow, complete with see-through windows, in the aurora, until the aurora changes shape and melts the illusion away. Thanks for sharing!

  4. That is some of the best video I’ve seen. I’d say it’s definitely real, considering the equipment he is using. And at way below freezing temps, no less! It’s amazing how far camera tech has come.

    There’s very little noise despite the amount of gain he is using. You can even see stars. Heh, can you imagine what the uncompressed version must look like :)

  5. Michel S.

    Will have to use a proxy server to watch the video; here in Germany, the equivalent of RIAA, GEMA, runs amok and this video is blocked because of its soundtrack!

    We already live in SOPA land, to some extent..

  6. Jason

    Yup, I can say from first hand. It really looks like this and better.

  7. Messier Tidy Upper

    Breathtakingly wonderful clip. Thankyou. :-)

    So good that we can find these clips online so quickly after the event – love Youtube and so much more online and think we must never take it for granted.

    I wonder if there’s a version of this or a similar auroral clip in real time without background music or anything added – just the experience as it was caught on film?

    The physics is complex and interesting, but the beauty of these lights is, to use another term, magical. Not in the fantasy sense, but in the sense of the emotional response we have to them. They are simply breathtaking in these videos, and are a wonderful by-product of our tempestuous Sun.

    ^ This! Quoted for truth. Absolutely agreed, wonderfully well said. :-)

    Science like this, explained and illustrated like this invokes that sense of awe and wonder and the numinous that I just love so much. This is why the Bad Astronomy blog is my favourite “place” on the whole world wide web. :-D

  8. I grew up in Minnesota. While I lived there, I saw some awesome light shows. The most memorable display occurred in the mid-80s during summer. The Aurora was so impressive in the city of Minneapolis that night that it made front page news the next day. I remember standing in my backyard staring up at the sky as it went nuts for nearly a half hour.

    I’ve since moved southwest, to San Diego. There probably will not be an opportunity to see live shows of Aurora down here where I live but I do confess to missing them. Thanks so much for shooting and sharing these awesome videos!

  9. Mike

    You, Brian Cox, Neil Degrasse Tyson, and Carl Sagan … someone should put together a montage of all of you describing in the background an aurora display like this one.

  10. @ ^ Mike : Seconded by me. :-)

    BTW. Thinking of plasma clouds and their interactions with the solar wind and storms click on my name here for a National Geographic article :

    Giant Veil of Cold Plasma Discovered High Above Earth :
    Clouds of charged particles stretch a quarter the way to the Moon experts say.
    By Dave Mosher

    that’s vaguely related and hopefully interesting for y’all.

  11. Kripi

    This is related to a very important observation you made on the ‘effect’ it has on the human mind-not just visually but much deeper, is there any literature of personal account of people;s experiences or existential insights;post viewing the aurora…How important do you think the experience of aurora is in making it so spectacular to us..

  12. Adam

    Looks amazing. Worth noting this was shot with a US $25,000 video camera, that’s why the quality is so good for capturing it in real time. I mean, you can easily pick out constellations. That is one freakin impressive sensor to capture that in 30fps video. Good luck doing that with a consumer or prosumer video camera.

  13. Meteor at 2:29. (Or a jet plane, if this wasn’t realtime.)

    Man, I saw just this effect in an art device from 2005, with ~100 fluorescent tubes packed in a flat array w/each driven by a separate hi-freq supply. The adjacent “plasma fingers” unexpectedly interact and give similar flickering effects.

    Now I wonder …are there MeV particles and electron runaway associated with this? A geiger counter might reveal unusual background count, especially with the plasma display aimed “straight down” at the observers.

  14. Wzrd1

    Phil, I am SHOCKED! It *IS* physical movement responsible for the lights. Were those subatomic particles NOT to move, there would be nothing to make the atoms of our upper atmosphere excited.
    Their exciting journey along magnetic lines make for the most wonderful experiences, for those who can tolerate cold.
    As we can no longer tolerate cold, we’ll anticipate an event that pushes our magnetic field enough to permit the lights to be visible here, though I’ll dread the results of crashed computers and servers (they’ve crashed annoyingly often after significant events, counting the last CME and flare that hit the Earth (Dropped two workstations, the servers are below grade and have better power line filtering)).

  15. Silvia

    If Alistair Chapman reads this or if you are in contact with him, could you ask if he could perhaps post it without music? There are some countries that do not allow this clip to be played because “it contains music for which the respective music rights have not been granted”. Yes, I live in one of those countries, and it’s a MAJOR nuisance. It’s highly appreciated if a non-music version could be posted. Thanks.

  16. Robert

    I grew up in the north of Scotland and I’ve see them move like that many times – the local name for the northern lights is The Merry Dancers – although I’ve never seen quite so impressive a display.

  17. funkmon

    Oh my god. Where are those others? I have always wanted to see real time Aurora footage.

  18. Hello all. I shot the video on the 24th in real time. It’s not a fake. This is what we saw with our own eyes. I’ve been filming Aurora for 6 years and this was the brightest, most active I have ever witnessed. I was using a state of the art video camera to shoot this, and to be honest even with this camera I wasn’t expecting to be able to shoot in real time. The Aurora occurred in two primary waves. There was an initial extremely bright burst at around 15:30 UTC that lasted about 90 seconds. Then the skies went dark. Then at about 20:00 there was a gradual increase in activity, reaching maximum brightness at about 22:00 when the entire sky had a green background glow while bright ribbons of light danced across our heads. The Aurora then faded at around 24:00 but didn’t dissappear altogether until dawn on the 25th.

  19. Pete Nash

    No its not fake. I live in the north of Sweden at 65.5N and often visit our winter cabin even further north in the deep Arctic wilderness. So I see aurora regularly and have seen a few displays to match that one. You get a feel for how strong the storm is by the range of colour and how dynamic the motion is. Unfortunately I can only take images on my Canon 550D since the chip isn’t sensitive enough to capture them in video mode.

    Saying that though the shots I took last week came out blurred at even at a 1 second exposure, so they were more vigorous than usual.

  20. That was lovely! I was lucky enough to see the aurora from my rooftop shortly after moving to Helsinki in 2005; it wasn’t nearly as dramatic as this video, but it was quite an experience — realizing a secret dream I had had for years. I’m (finally!) planning a long weekend trip north of the arctic circle in February, so hopefully the sun will stay pretty active and we’ll get a good show…

    Oh, and I absolutely agree with Mike! Maybe even something like Symphony of Science? :)

  21. Jan from Denmark

    This is a stunning video of the Auroras.

    Saw something similar, maybe not quite as fast in the beginning of the 2000′s – but I was very surprised how fast the aurora could change.

    Thanks for sharing.

  22. Anders

    I can tell you from personal observation, that yes, this is actually what it can look like. The movements looks about right, but sometimes it moves slower, sometimes it fades away and comes back and sometimes it looks COMPLETELY different. I served in the army near Tromsø, and once, while tenting atop a mountain, I walked out to pee, and saw the entire sky covered, and I mean the ENTIRE sky, from horizon to horizon in every direction covered in northern lights, but not like this video, it was covered in red, purple,green intersped with black, sort of what youll see when pressing a finger against your closed eyelid until it hurts, except brighter.

    Secondly, I can tell you this: No matter what resolution this fantastic video comes in, nothing beats seeing it for yourself. Tromsø is a fantastic little city with an airport. Go there sometime during the winter (or summer to see the midnight sun) to see this for yourself. Beer is expensive tho.

  23. MeganMcC

    Proof that inside every astronomer is a stoner, struggling to get out. That said you’d need a heart of ice not to be touched by this beautiful footage.

  24. Chris

    @6 Adam
    For $25,000 you’d think the pictures would be in focus! But still quite amazing. Definitely worth freezing your a$$.

  25. @Chris: How do you know it is not in focus? The light is probably fuzzy, as you see it in the video. Maybe.

  26. Living in the Arctic, Kiruna/Sweden to be specific, I’ve seen quite a few Auroral shows. I’ll tell you that the speed of movement and fluctuations of the aurora in the video seems realistic, I see no reason to suspect the video’s a fake. It’s amazing that they’ve been able to shoot this with such short shutter times as would be required for real time video, though ISO-6400 tells you this was not done with your regular off-the-shelf gear. Still, the winter cold usually helps with some of the noise.

    Like #11 Anders wrote, this is still far from like watching the aurora live, often stretching out across the entire sky with dancing curtains. A few times I’ve seen pulsating auroras when large portions of the sky has been pulsing green at a few Hz of frequency.

  27. SL

    Where I live in Trondheim, 500 km south of the arctic circle, we see northern lights (as they are usually called here) on a regular basis. And no, this video is most likely not a fake. Sometimes it moves very very slow, and sometimes it dances around in green, white and red.

    For those who haven’t seen it in real life I would highly recommend a trip to the far north/south in the winter. It might be a bit nippy, anywhere from 0 to -20 C is normal for winter here in Norway, but it seeing the aurora with your own eyes is worth it. Just make sure you can get out of the light pollution in the cities/towns.

  28. Alex Lange

    First of all the video is stunning!
    Could someone explain how it appears as it does? I would think that the subatomic particles hitting would be more diffuse and light up tbe whole sky. Anybody know the answer?

  29. Marina

    Thanks for posting, Phil. Now I can die happy (in 40 years).

  30. Daniel J. Andrews

    I should go to Norway to see the lights then if it is only -20. :) I’m heading north this week into our subArctic (Canada) and temps there have been bouncing down into the -30s and -40s. I will try to photograph any aurora while I’m up there, but unfortunately it won’t look close to this video.

    As others have said actually seeing one is better, and even better than seeing it, is seeing it with a group of other people who are equally enthralled. One fall my girlfriend (now wife) and I climbed onto the top of the Yukon lodge to join the lodge staff on their roof, and we reclined on the slope of the roof staring up together and “oohing” and “ahhing”, and having those kinds of interesting conversations you can have with people you’ve been around for an intense summer and will probably not see again after that. It still is a magical time in our memories. Magic exists.

  31. pete

    Added this to my bucket list…..

  32. Steve P

    Really fabulous video We saw a similar display in Alaska in October 2005. This video was all the more special with the music.

  33. SL

    @Daniel J. Andrews: We have the Gulf stream keeping us cozy ;) At least a lot warmer than at similar latitudes around the world. But you might get unlucky and it goes down to -30 – -40C inland. The coldest temperature recorded in mainland Norway is -51.4C.

  34. Ganzy

    Watching that took me back… swoon This is not fake. I was extremely lucky to see the aurora with my wife 15 years ago in Whitehorse, Yukon. It was midnight on the last night of our stay while walking back to our friends place after having a few beers. From a thin green wisp across a clear night sky, they quickly grew in intensity over aperiod of ten minutes.

    I was struck by the sense of three dimensionality when I looked up into an otherwise ‘flat’ looking sky. The speed with which these shimmering green and pink tinged gossamer curtains rippled across the sky was truly breath taking. Exactly like in the video above. In the midst of this fantastic light show, I immediately realised why the indigenous peoples there percieved them as spirits of dead ancestors dancing across the sky.

    knowing what they are and why they appear and do what they do as well as their pre-scientific explanation just means double the fun and wonder.

    If you are living under circumstances that would allow you to go see them at some point, then go, you won’t regret it.

  35. Like Marj, I grew up in MN. The first time I saw the northern lights was in the early 80s. I remember it scared the hell out of me and my brother; we must have recently seen some sci-fi movie, because we thought that the lights were aliens coming to invade. My parents, however, explained everything to us, so we went back outside to marvel at how beautiful it was. I recall there being a lot of reds in addition to the more common greens.

    I don’t recall seeing the lights again until sometime around 1990-92. By then, we’d moved further south, to the Minneapolis area. Being even that small amount further south, the aurorae were almost never seen, between the change in latitude and increased light pollution. But one day (I think it was spring or summer, since I recall it being warmer out and no snow), I was in the front yard just after dusk and noticed a green glow to the north. It didn’t take long at all to realize it was the northern lights.

  36. Crudely Wrott

    I saw this type of motion the only time I ever saw the aurora. It was about 1960 in southeastern New Hampshire.

    The shape that I saw more resembled a curtain across most of the northern horizon that stretched upward at least thirty degrees. It really looked like a gauzy, diaphanous curtain and it was waving and wafting in some unfelt breeze. Very graceful and with unexpected reversals and changes in speed.

    Green, like the color in this fantastic video, was the predominant color, fading in some places and brightening in others. What cemented the memory for me was the sudden washes of red that would simply appear and surge from west to east and back across my field of view. It was really quite startlingly red; very deep yet very bright.

    My memory of a magical fifteen minutes has remained sharp all these years and now has been invoked so wonderfully.

    Huge thanks to Alister and to Phil.

    I’m living in North Carolina now and the sun’s recent activity has me hoping that maybe there’s a chance to get another look before too long. (unless my years long curse of cloudy skies on skyworthy nights can’t be broken)

  37. MadScientist

    You can tell from the humans walking in the ice that the shimmering is not all that slow. I can’t recall if it was Duke Ellington or Count Basie who was driving along in Canada and saw the lights, but the description suggested that the lights changed rapidly. There are also aurorae which look more like pink clouds than curtains of light – that sort doesn’t shimmer like this one.

  38. ND

    Do the auroras produce any x-rays? I’ve been wondering and could not find an answer.

    Also, based on the jerky motion of the people walking at around 3:40, the frame rate is low. This I suppose would make sense since it’s really dark out and the exposure for each frame would be longer than during the day.

    ps. Thanks for looking up these videos Phil. Really cool.

  39. Grizzly

    How can anyone assume this was fake? I’ve seen much the same in my life, the first being in the late 80′s in Kenora Ontario. The locals were all blasé about it, but I was quite gobsmacked by the beauty.

    Someone was asking about the impact that it has on the viewer, and I would suggest that it is as it is with any event in life dependent upon the person and what they bring to the equation.

    I was left immensely grateful for having had the experience (despite the -40 degree cold), and awestruck at the beauty of our planet, amazed at the power of our rather insignificant (in the grand scheme of things) sun, and delighted at the beauty of the show.

  40. Richard Woods

    Until I personally saw an aurora from the Milwaukee area a decade ago, I, too, had thought that the rapid movements shown in films were always the result of time-lapse photography. (Perhaps all the films I had seen _were_ time-lapsed.) When I first went outside to watch the display from my suburban driveway, there were stationary auroral “curtains” in the northwest. Over the next half-hour I saw slow movement that fit my preconception. Then the motions sped up, faster and faster. Eventually, the aurora fluttered, shimmered and curled just as fast as curtains blown by wind at an open window, with split-second changes. I was amazed, and now I understand.

  41. Richard Woods

    Phil: “Mind you, the movement you’re seeing isn’t a physical motion. It’s not like solid curtains of material are flapping.”

    No, but the rapidity of apparent motion can be the same or faster, as I saw.

  42. Jack_in_TOS

    To reiterate what others are saying: Yes, it’s real. I’m from Tromsø, and this is what we’ve been experiencing the past week or so. A happy combination of stable high pressure over Russia has kept us largely cloud-free, and the increased solar activity has given us some great shows. There aren’t many advantages to a northern Norwegian winter, but every now and then… This!

    Go to http://www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast/3 for more info, forecasts, etc.

  43. Scott in MN

    Yes, I loved seeing the extra treat of the meteor as 2:29 as well, and seeing Orion so big and beautiful in the background just adds to the wonder. I’ve seen aurora a few times in Minnesota, but never as dramatic as this. I must email my buddy who now lives in Norway and see what he has to say. Thanks Alister for the great footage, and to Phil for linking to it.

  44. I very much would like to see this, but YouTube Germany won’t show it because of the “GEMA-Conjecture” that this video uses copyright music. Is there another source to it?

  45. Jeff

    beautiful, and in 55 years of life, I’ve only seen this ONCE, 23 years ago in Florida during a rare solar event.

    I’ll not see it again unless I go to arctic

  46. Wayne on the Plains

    I am so glad to know that camera technology as progressed to the point where this is possible. I’ve always said the hardest part of seeing an aurora to explain is how dynamic it is. Thank you for this.

  47. I hope the sound track can be remixed with easily-licensable music (I recommend my friends partnersinrhyme.com) and with high-pass filtering on the live audio tracks to eliminate the wind rumbling.

  48. Bjorn

    I live near the arctic circle in Sweden and this video is genuine. When the auroras are strong they move like this. Less intense lights are slower and sometimes when they are really weak its hard to tell them apart from clouds that are lit from human made ground based lights.

  49. Margaret Trinklein

    Thank you so much for sharing this exciting film of God’s wonderful display of beauty!

  50. Matt B.
  51. Ashley

    saw them more active than this here in Alaska last month, it was the most amazing thing I’ve ever had the privilege of witnessing. Sometimes they can move so fast and just suddenly burst right in front of you, it takes your breath away.

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