Time-lapse aurora videos have become so ubiquitous it can seem weird to see the northern lights at normal speed. But sometimes that's the best way to see them, especially if they're moving quickly. The video above — which should be watched in high definition — provides a perfect example. The whole video is worth a look, but if nothing else, make sure you skip ahead and watch from the 1:52 mark.
Filmed by U.K. photographer Phil Halper, aka "skydivephil" on YouTube, the real-time video features aurora borealis outbreaks at three locations. It opens with 20 seconds of distant auroras seen from the window of an airplane leaving Toronto. It then cuts to ground level in Iceland, where a display begins with relatively faint lights and gradually intensifies, sparking bright green ribbons with hints of red.
(If you're curious what causes the different colors, they depend on gases in the air. Auroras are caused by supercharged particles from solar wind striking Earth's atmosphere, and those particles coax certain colors out of certain gases at certain heights. Oxygen glows greenish-yellow at about 60 miles high and red at higher altitudes, for example, while nitrogen emits blue or reddish-purple light.)
The video could end there and be a success, but instead it shifts into high gear at 1:52, revealing a Mardi Gras-colored explosion of fast-moving lights directly overhead. In addition to the aurora's color and intensity, the view is especially intricate because it shows a "corona" of northern lights. This perspective is sort of like looking up into a tornado rather than seeing its funnel from the side — albeit more beautiful and much safer. Bad Astronomy's Phil Plait offers this explanation in a recent post about the video:
"The particles sweep down in sheets, and when seen from the side can look long and thin. But if you're directly underneath them, you get that amazing perspective effect of the corona, looking straight up into the vertical sheets. They appear paper thin, curling and whipping, moving in graceful and mesmerizing patterns, apparently radiating away from the sky's zenith. And it all happens so quickly, like someone throwing a bucket of neon paint into the sky!"
That might seem like a good high note on which to end, but Halper isn't finished yet. After about 150 seconds of auroras over Iceland, he makes a final scene change to Churchill, Manitoba, a subarctic town known as the "polar bear capital of the world." There we see a nonchalant polar bear lumber by as green auroras dance overhead, adding even more real-world context often absent from time-lapse films. And just as the video seems ready to wrap up with a serene river of green across the Canadian sky, it squeezes in one last surprise: a bright meteor streaking past at 3:23.
This impressive real-time montage comes just a few weeks too late to make MNN's recent list of the best aurora borealis videos from 2014, but it certainly sets the bar high for 2015.