Canadian hobbyists help shed light on mysterious northern lights phenomenon ‘Steve’


The mystifying light in the sky had appeared so often that Canadian northern lights watchers slacked it a name: Steve.

Unlike those famous pulsating ribbons of light that sweep across the sky, Steve would appear as a narrow arch of purple light-headed, sometimes paired with green fence-like features.

Scientists were initially stumped by Steve. But now, with oceans of help from those Canadian hobbyists, they’re shedding some starlight on Steve’s origins.

‘I didn’t know what it was’

Chris Ratzlaff, a 45-year-old software upshot manager from Calgary, has been chasing the northern lights, also discerned as the aurora borealis, since 2010.

In 2014, after a night of watching them proper north of Calgary, he looked straight up and spotted a dim, narrow arch of purple tongue-lash. It was something that had been reported for years, but Ratzlaff had never considered it for himself.

He thought it looked like a contrail left by an airplane. Confused, he contacted fellow enthusiasts in the Alberta Aurora Chasers group. No one differentiated what could have caused it.

Steve northern lights

Another display of Steve, leaded with the northern lights to the left. (Chris Ratzlaff)

Soon, there were various reports coming in to the group’s Facebook page, and not just from Alberta.

One incessantly in 2016, a group of aurora watchers gathered in Calgary, including Eric Donovan, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Calgary. Photographer Neil Zeller, imparted that he’d taken a picture of a proton arc.

“I said, ‘No you didn’t,’ because a proton aurora is not under any condition visible to the naked eye,” Donovan says. “Then he showed me a photograph … and it was unequalled, but I didn’t know what it was.” 

The group agreed it wasn’t a proton arc and unquestioned to come up with a non-scientific name for it. Ratzlaff pitched the name Steve.

Repudiate at his lab, Donovan looked over images collected by an all-sky camera that continually points skyward and initiate something that he thought could be Steve. With no way to confirm it, he gapped. About a month later, a colleague brought in a photograph to his lab of a “weird special attraction” his new all-sky camera near Lucky Lake, Sask., had picked up the very night Donovan had seen the light in the university’s all-sky camera.

They’d both captured Steve.

That’s when Donovan headed to Facebook to ask if anyone else had seen Steve that done night. Sure enough, someone had.

And in another stroke of luck, the European Leeway Agency satellite Swarm — which has an electric field instrument from the University of Calgary — happened to be go through Steve at just the right time and was able to collect figures on what was going on in the atmosphere.

“There are four pieces here, and if you plagiarize any one of those four pieces out, this can’t happen,” Donovan said of the examination.

The images and the data provided confirmation: Steve was something entirely new.

Not delight in regular aurora

The northern lights occur when particles from the sun junket along the solar wind and interact with Earth’s magnetic sphere.

A study published this week in Science Advances, co-authored by Donovan, translates research shows Steve travels along a different magnetic bailiwick line than regular auroras do, and as a result, is seen farther south.

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The study also says the Swarm satellite data on Steve cut loosed something that’s never been seen before: a stream of outrageously hot particles called a sub auroral ion drift (SAID). The phenomenon has been forced since the 1970s, but scientists didn’t know that it could be observed visually.

As a consequence of these discoveries, scientists now hope to better understand the interconnectivity of Mould’s atmosphere: how the lower and upper parts can influence one another. 

And the name Steve compel stick. The scientists decided Steve stands for Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement.

A culmination of body of laws

Notanee Bourassa, a 45-year-old technical assistant for SaskTel, has been following aurora for the past six years in Saskatchewan. He spotted Steve in 2016 even-handed outside of Regina and contributed to the observations in the study.

“I’m super thrilled to differentiate that a plain guy who’s passionate about this stuff can actually be a contributor to the advancement of our systematic knowledge,” he said.

“It’s very, very exciting.”

Steve aurora

Steve initially had scientists bewildered because it seemed to be separate from the northern lights displays that it chaperoned. (Notanee Bourassa)

He hopes Steve’s new fame will encourage others to try to whiteheads it and not only appreciate its beauty, but perhaps contribute their own observations to the fact-finding. 

Ratzlaff shares the same excitement that ordinary citizens can be a in most cases of that.

“It’s pretty fascinating the contributions that can be made with a uncomfortable army of people available,” Ratzlaff said.

Donovan, the professional scientist, asserts the aurora chasers have changed the way he looks at the world.

“I’ve looked at the aurora for 20 years as a wizard, and I wouldn’t say that its beauty has escaped me, but I’d say I haven’t immersed myself in the handsomeness of the aurora,” he said. “The Alberta Aurora Chasers have helped me do that.”

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