Northern lights!

If you're eyebones are tired, try an audio version of this Northern Lights post instead!

Photo from by Christopher Picking, Wairarapa, North Island, New Zealand, Nov. 8, 2004

At 11:00 p.m. on a chilly night in November, 2004, I wearily navigated my way home from a downtown wedding, tired from the evening’s merry-making. As I approached a curve in the road by Northwestern University, something caught my attention: an unusual glow of palest green in the sky over the campus. Party lights?  It was awfully bright for that.  Were they filming a movie? Normally my curiosity might have ended there and I would have continued on home, but this light seemed peculiar and out of place. In a moment it occurred to me there might be a more cosmic explanation, and I had to find out what it was. 

I swung into a nearby parking lot, working to keep my eyes on both the pavement and the sky above, and made a beeline to the far end, closest to the lake.  My hopes grew. Finally, I yanked the parking brake into place, jumped out of the car, and my wildest hopes were confirmed: over the water hung a colossal expanse of eerie green light, and I realized I was seeing for the first time in my life … the northern nights!

this is what the green expanse looked like over Lake Michigan
Photo from by R.J.Drew,
Rosley, Cumbria Northern England, Nov. 11, 2004

The motionless blaze of green was suspended like ghostly glacier in mid-air far over Lake Michigan.  Directly above me, spikes of green light shot sharply skyward almost to a point, as though I was looking up into the center of a luminescent pyramid.  To the north, the entire horizon glowed as if strung from end to end with a curtain of soft green light. 

like peering up into a luminescent pyramid
Photo from by Carol Lakomiak,
Tomahawk WI, Nov. 07, 2004

The northern lights, or aurora borealis, rarely reach as far south as Chicago. But tonight a breath-taking display filled the entire sky!  I laughed and gasped in awe, almost weeping from the joy and excitement that welled in me at seeing the auroras for the first time, and with such intensity and magnitude. When I finally calmed down, I simply stared, barely blinking as the ethereal lights morphed slowly and silently around the cloudless sky. They were unearthly, and utterly beautiful--as enchanting as Christmas lights, as mesmerizing as a hearth fire, as peaceful as a sunset. I felt energized and tranquil, bewitched and humbled.

a curtain of green light in the skyPhoto from by Chris VenHaus, Wisconsin, Nov. 8, 2004

I wanted to call everyone I knew with the news of this awesome event. I fumbled for my cell phone and dialed a friend, sputtering into her answering machine that she had to go outside
right now to see what was happening. At almost midnight on a Sunday, it was understandable that she didn’t answer her phone and I decided not to make any more phone calls.  Then I looked around the deserted lakefront -- where was everyone? Didn’t anyone know what was happening out here?  Wasn’t it on all the news stations?  How come there weren’t crowds of people taking in this celestial magic! It felt lonely not being able to share the experience with anyone, even strangers. No one seemed to be aware of it. And what if I hadn’t seen the light above the campus? I might have missed them, too.

Auroras in Elgin, Illinois!Photo from by Andrew Gillespie, Elgin, Illinois, Nov. 7, 2004

The brisk November wind blew through my thin jacket, and suddenly I felt cold and vulnerable on that empty campus path.  I needed to change from my party clothes and high heels into something warmer and more suitable for skywatching. Reluctantly, I left the scene and drove home, my eyes half on the road and half glued to the heavens.  I jumped into jeans, gym shoes and my down coat, then cruised through the empty midnight streets to Lighthouse Beach to catch more of the show. 

RynnePhoto from by S. M. Rynne, Zion, Illinois, Nov. 8, 2004

The mass and streaks and curtain that had hung so still in the sky earlier had shifted into a lively dance of pale glowing ribbons rippling across the sky.  Thick, wavy streams of light pulsed from one horizon to the other. I half expected thunder to accompany the lightening-like flashes, but the turbulent geomagnetic storm was soundless.  I wrapped myself in a woolly blanket and lay in the sand for a better view.  For the hour I was able to stay awake and reasonably warm I scanned the sky intently, eager to catch every last flicker. In that time, only three other spectators appeared.  “Like a camp fire in the sky!” one of them exclaimed.  But within a few they left and I was alone again. Finally, the chill and weariness in my bones called more strongly than the fascination overhead.  I hated to leave while there was even a hint of light left in the sky, but I pulled myself away from the beach and drove home.

Woodstock, IllinoisPhoto from by John Carzoli, Woodstock, Illinois, Nov. 7, 2004

The next day I was bursting to tell people about the northern lights here in Chicago.  Most responded with a passive, “Oh really?”  Few had ever seen them, and almost none shared my enthusiasm.  I scanned the news sites and radio reports but heard very little being discussed about the spectacle I had witnessed. I was truly puzzled.  An eye-popping and very rare display of auroras dominated our urban skyscape all night long, and it seemed no one knew about it!  Except for amateur astronomers from around the world, who had already posted dozens of spectacular photos online

KeefePhoto from by Jodie Keefe, Waverly, Minnesota, Nov. 7, 2004

I shared the story with my boss, who was raised in northern Minnesota, and she was tickled to see my excitement, sheepishly admitting the northern lights were so common in her youth that she almost stopped noticing them. I tried to imagine growing up with such nighttime magic being considered utterly ordinary.

Photo from by Andrea Francis,
Macomb, Illinois, Nov. 7, 2004

Ancient scientists dubbed the phenomenon of the northern lights aurora borealis after Aurora, the Roman goddess of the dawn, and the Greek word “boreas” meaning “north wind.”   According to the National Weather Service’s Space Weather Prediction Center, auroras start with a “coronal mass ejection” (CME)--a disruption on our fiery sun that blasts up to a billion tons of matter away from its surface.  This matter hurls through space on the "solar wind" at thousands of miles per second.  When it meets Earth's magnetic atmosphere, the resulting “geomagnetic storm” energizes particles and gases that glow green, red and violet – the typical colors of an auroral display.  Most auroras are visible closer to the north pole (and the south pole, where they are called aurora australis). Particularly powerful geomagnetic storms occasionally push the auroras to skywatchers at lower latitudes than normal. reports that the display I saw lasted from November 7-10, 2004 and was seen in every U.S. state except Hawaii.  Photos of the display are posted at Spaceweather's November 2004 Aurora Gallery. I’m still amazed no one I know, except my brother in Madison, was even aware it happened.

in Madison, Wisconsin
Photo from by Abe Megahed,
Madison, Wisconsin (downtown!), Nov. 8, 2004

A few nights later I caught the farewell display of that multi-night performance: a pink wash in the northern sky and a faint but unmistakable green glow over Lake Michigan.  I watched for maybe half an hour, sad to see them fading away but thoroughly uplifted and transformed by having seen them at all.  The thrill of that first spectacular show will live with me forever, and I hold out hope–with help from Spaceweather e-mail alerts – that I’ll see the northern lights once again over my hometown. Luckily, according to, the arrival of northern autumn signals that aurora season is underway.

And next time I’m waking
everyone up to tell them about it.

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