Heavenly scribbles

Thu, 03/29/2012 - 2:15am

Yesterday morning, purely by chance, I happened to be up wandering about; but it was too cold, too dark and too early to stay up and I headed back to bed. Passing the wide kitchen windows, a shooting star caught my eye.

I thought first of meteor showers, and didn’t recall hearing of any expected. But then I realized it was not a shooting star, no gleaming needle threading the black; rather a thick line of light in the dark southern sky. It had the look of the trail left behind by a big plane, but there was no pinpoint leading it, no silver bird throwing off a widening wake.

It lightened, and I wondered if it was so high it was somehow catching the sun, still well below the horizon. But that made no sense.

Another line appeared as I watched, jagged, at first an echo. It intensified, all white and green, like the phosphorus that filled the ocean one winter and made the surf increasingly visible as the moon waned.

It was cold and dark and early and I went back upstairs and looked out the south facing windows to see even more lights, like so many children’s toys left under a lamp, then tossed up to stick against the dome of the sky.

They were clearly not jet streams nor meteors — nor the aliens suggested to me the next day. If creatures from another place were to make it all the way to earth, surely they would arrive with more precision, with more pomp and circumstance than these squiggly lines.

It never crossed my mind to put on shoes and go outside. The lights seemed not to be climbing over the house from the north, but to be a part of some display in the southern sky. The last I saw were out the west-facing window, another double set of greenish white scribbles. I meant to turn on the radio and see if anyone in Providence was seeing the same thing, but either I fell asleep before hitting the button or it was not enough to keep me awake.

It was not until the next evening that my neighbor asked me if I’d seen the Northern Lights. No, I was so sure — but I had seen something in the southern sky, not the curtain of the Aurora Borealis, but something.

My memory was jogged and briefly I wondered how I could have so easily given in to too cold, too dark, too early. I blame it on getting out of bed with bare feet on a morning that felt like the March we had let ourselves be lulled into believing was past. Then I remembered how when we were children, our parents woke us one night to be bundled up and taken out to see the Northern Lights flaring up behind Bush Lot Hill. I pretended I saw what they were talking about; in fact all I could see was a glow in the sky, none of the spiking colors I would later see in the Golden Library of Science.

Now, though, I can find an article by an amateur astronomer and the author of “Pennsylvania Starwatch,” Michael Lynch. It was printed a few days ago in a paper in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. He begins with a less than promising note about entering an unspectacular season for sky-watching, when “the great winter constellation Orion the Hunter and his posse of surrounding constellations are beginning their gradual night to night march to the western horizon...”

Then he opens the door: “This spring stargazing season may be a little more lively, though, because of aurora, otherwise known as northern lights. As a matter of fact, aurora may be a little more common through the end of next year and even beyond that, because northern lights are basically the blow off of huge solar storms from our sun, and this is turning into a stormy time for our home star.”

At first while reading I skim the explanations of Auro Magnetic field lines and the expulsion of coronal mass ejections, or CMEs. But this guy in Pennsylvania recaptures my attention with: “These charged particles move like celestial bats out of solar hell at speeds that can exceed four million miles an hour. At times, the Earth finds itself in the path of these particles and that’s when auroras arrive in our skies.”

There is an 11-year cycle, and for the next couple of years the sun, like some wild child, “will be on the high energy end of its ‘hyperactive’ cycle, with many more flares and CMEs.

Lynch continues: “When these charged particles reach the vicinity of our planet, the magnetic field of the Earth directs these particles toward both the north and south geomagnetic poles. These geomagnetic poles don’t exactly coincide with the terrestrial poles but they’re close. The northern geomagnetic pole is in far northern Canada. That’s why we see more northern lights around Shamokin than the folks see in Florida.

“Once these charged particles get to within 70 to 100 miles of Earth’s surface, they work their magic with our atmosphere. They temporarily disrupt the structure of atoms and molecules. Electrons are temporarily knocked away from the nuclei of atoms resulting in the discharge of light. As billions and billions and billions of collisions occur, the brilliant colors of the aurora dazzle us surface dwellers.”

Finally, paydirt: “Most of the time, we see greenish white colors as oxygen atoms are excited... northern lights seem to float across the sky in waves and curtains as they follow the lines of Earth’s magnetic field. Most of the time, northern lights are restricted to the northern part of the sky, but during really active displays they can spread all over the heavens.”

Aurora it must have been, out of place, but white and green, flashing heavenly scribbles in the cold, early dark.