Green northern lights gleam above British Columbia's Mount Minto in February 2014. (Photo: Lyndsay Esson/Flickr)
While the northern lights can appear any time of year, they seem especially apropos at Christmas. Not only are auroras easier to see in winter circling the North (or South) Pole, but their huge displays of color — featuring lots of red and green — often look like rivers of Christmas spirit flowing 60 miles overhead.
That's why, for the last several Decembers, MNN has put together a year-end list of amazing aurora videos from the previous 12 months. This "holiday in lights" series has been assisted by the recent solar maximum, a nebulous peak in the roughly 11-year cycle of solar outbursts that cause auroras on Earth. The current solar cycle began spiking in 2011, and after periodic dips in 2012 and 2013, it returned in 2014 — including a major X-class solar flare the sun unleashed just this week.
The current solar maximum is weak by historical standards, but thanks to an increasingly well-equipped generation of tech-savvy photographers, its visible effect on Earth has nonetheless been captured in unprecedented detail. High-definition, time-lapse aurora videos are now a common sight online, especially when social media publicize incoming geomagnetic storms as they did in February.
Even this subdued solar max is expected to fade soon, with NASA predicting a steep drop in solar activity from 2015 through 2018. But regardless of what the sun does next year, this holiday season is a good time to appreciate the gifts our star has already provided during our latest revolution around it. So, without further ado, here are seven of the best aurora videos from 2014:
"The Northern Lights" in Alberta, Canada
Earth experienced an aurora barrage in February 2014, including major displays in Europe and North America. Photographer Richard Gottardo was there to catch waves of northern lights above the Canadian Rockies in Alberta, squeezing 3,500 photos into three minutes of time-lapse. Swirling clouds add drama to the video, which Gottardo dedicates to his late grandfather — a fitting tribute, since some indigenous cultures have traditionally seen auroras as the souls of their ancestors.
"Encounters" in Norway and Iceland
Maybe it's just friluftsliv, but Norwegian photographer Stian Rekdal has a knack for capturing the stark beauty of Scandinavia in time-lapse. For "Encounters," he juxtaposes wild auroras and starry skies against the terrestrial beauty of both Norway and Iceland. He includes a human element, too, posing a member of his expedition in the foreground from 1:18 to 1:26 while green auroras dance overhead.
"I headed to Alaska in February with the hope of catching a glimpse of the Northern Lights," California photographer Alexis Coram wrote on Vimeo earlier this year. "That glimpse turned into an extravaganza ... a party in the sky." She seized the opportunity to film her first time-lapse video, an opus of wild auroras and star trails that has been watched 234,000 times since it was released in April.
"Soaring" in Norway
This is the only non-time-lapse video in our roundup, and it might be the best one. Time-lapse is a good way to show the motion of slower auroras, but photographer Ole C. Salomonsen didn't need it for an eruption of fast-moving lights over Tromsø, Norway, between August and November. "These displays could never have been presented as they were without realtime video," Salomonsen writes on Vimeo. "Even realtime video with frame rate of 25 fps is struggling to keep up at times with the fastest displays." Five minutes may seem long, but it's worth every second. The lights get really crazy at about 3:34.
"Night of the Northern Lights" in Scotland
Places like Norway and Alaska are known for their northern lights, but an X4.9 solar flare in late February sent auroras cascading to more southerly latitudes, including major displays above the British Isles. This time-lapse video by Maciej Winiarczyk — a "landscape and nightscape" photographer based in Caithness, Scotland — shows some stunning displays from latitude 58.3 degrees north.
This video isn't just about auroras. Released in January by Chicago photographer Eric Hines, it tours landscapes and skies around Michigan's Upper Peninsula, including a snowy waterfall scene at 0:22, lake-reflected stars at 0:59 and a beach blizzard at 1:38. When the northern lights do appear, though — first at 1:07 and again at 1:47 — it's some of the most impressive aurora footage released this year.
"Flyover" from low-Earth orbit
As a bonus, this video — made with photos taken from the International Space Station — features amazing footage of both aurora borealis and aurora australis. Similar to the effect of "hygge" during the holiday season, there's just something about the view from space that puts everything in perspective.