The Aurora Borealis, or more commonly known as the northern lights occur when particles from the sun travel along the solar wind and interact with Earth’s magnetic field causing a natural lighting spectacle that can be seen in the Northern Hemisphere.
These ribbons of light dance and shine across our northern sky and have been the source of legends, myths and mystical luck that have been sought out and seen by millions of people over the years.
In Alberta we have a Facebook Group called the Alberta Aurora Chasers that seek out, take pictures of and discuss this astronomical event (and others).
In 2014 one of these Chasers, Chris Ratzlaff, happened to look up to see something strange, a dim purple arch of light.
This was reported on the Facebook group and soon had a number of people from even outside of Alberta confirming what was seen, but there was a question about what exactly it was.
Two years later, in 2016, a group of chasers gathered in the Calgary area.
During this gathering a conversation about the strange event was struck with a dark sky photographer, Neil Zeller and a professor of astronomy at the University of Calgary, Eric Donovan. The two concluded that the picture that Donovan had taken was not a proton arc, which would not be visible to the naked eye but did not know what exactly it was.
Having no name for the event and not knowing what it was, Chris Ratzlaff suggested it be called “Steve”.
The conversations of the chasers opened up into larger discussions and an Inquiry by Zeller to see if anyone else had witnessed or captured the event.
Sure enough, there were other sighting, including that of the European Space Agency satellite Swarm which just happened to be flying through Steve at and was able to collect data on what was going on in the atmosphere. The European Space Agency satellite Swarm has another local tie in to the Alberta area due to using an electric field instrument from the University of Calgary that assisted in the data collection.
What this data relieved is something very interesting and new.
The name “Steve” stuck and is now used by scientist to describe the event as Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement (S.T.E.V.E.).
Steve travels differently from that of a normal Aurora on a different magnetic field which allows it to be seen farther south and releases very hot particles called a sub auroral ion drift (SAID).
You can see the article that was co-authored by Eric Donovan and Liz McDonald based on the research in Science Advances.
As a result of the observations in the Calgary area and the Alberta dark sky, scientists now hope to better understand how the lower and upper parts can influence one another and the interconnectivity of Earth’s atmosphere.
This is big science from our small local back yard, and none of this would be possible if it were not for the Dark Sky and the ability to observe the unique phenomenon.
This is just one of the reasons we need to keep protecting the Dark Sky and stop the light pollution.