I have seen the Northern Lights in Naperville, Illinois. Sort of.
Not long ago, at a meeting of the Naperville Astronomical Association, I attended a terrific talk by Dr. José Salgado of the Adler Planetarium. He began by describing a series of astronomy films he and the Adler have made. Each film has been set to music in a live summertime outdoor performance by an orchestra in downtown Chicago.
For his next film in the “Science and Symphony” series, Dr. Salgado wanted to capture the Northern Lights. The colorful glow of the Aurora Borealis is rarely seen in Chicago. It’s much more common at higher latitudes, since the Earth’s northern “auroral oval” is a ring, thousands of kilometers across, approximately centered on the North Magnetic Pole. (There’s another one in the south, but the Antarctic is much less convenient to visit.)
So he packed up a lot of camera equipment and flew to Yellowknife, in Canada’s Northwest Territories. It’s a town of 19,000 people at 62.5 degrees North latitude. There’s a bit of light pollution, but at night he’d drive an hour away from town to see darker sky.
The auroral oval grows and shrinks with fluctuations in solar activity, and with fluctuations in the number of electrons trapped in the Earth’s magnetosphere. But very often, part of the oval lies right over Yellowknife, or very near it. It’s estimated that there are 240 days per year when observers in Yellowknife have a 90% to 100% chance of seeing an aurora.
To make a long (but fascinating) story short, Dr. Salgado and his cameras obtained plenty of spectacular time-lapse footage of flowing, writhing, folding, kinking, pulsing colors in the Arctic sky. These sequences appeared in the finished film, Legend of the Northern Lights, accompanied by the Grant Park Orchestra playing an original score by Christopher Theofandis. In August, 2014, for two live performances, 32,000 Chicagoans were privileged to experience the spectacular combination of film and music–nearly twice the population of Yellowknife.
Much later, we in Naperville got to see some of these sequences (sans symphony orchestra). You, too, can see still images of Dr. Salgado’s work at his Flickr pages, or a sample video clip here. Read about his production company, KV265, here.