Let's Just Call It "Steve" - Perspectives from The Artist's Road

Let’s Just Call It “Steve”

Perspectives from The Artist’s Road

Steve, photograph by Catalin Tapardel from aurorasaurus.org
Steve as photographed by Catalin Tapardel
Aurorasaurus.org Blog

   We visual artists are deeply interested in light in all its various forms and manifestations. This fall, Ann and I had the opportunity to view the Aurora Borealis while we were on a trip to Minnesota. Soft green clouds and curtains of light raced across the northern sky toward us and over our heads before disappearing. They pulsed rapidly, much like the waves on the lake where we were staying. It was fascinating and lucky for us that our mobile phone cameras could capture even more of it than the eye can see.

   Scientists have long understood what causes the two types of auroras that we see - the Aurora Borealis in the Northern Hemisphere, and the Aurora Australis in the Southern. The technical description from the NOAA goes like this:

   High-energy particles from the sun strike electrons in our magnetosphere. (The magnetosphere is our “force field” which protects our planet from space radiation.) The electrons are energized through acceleration processes in the downwind tail (night side) of the magnetosphere and at lower altitudes along auroral field lines. The accelerated electrons follow the magnetic field of Earth either up or down to the Polar Regions where they collide with oxygen and nitrogen atoms and molecules in Earth’s upper atmosphere. In these collisions, the electrons transfer their energy to the atmosphere thus exciting the atoms and molecules to higher energy states. When they relax back down to lower energy states, they release their energy in the form of light. This is similar to how a neon light works. The aurora typically forms 80 to 500 km above Earth’s surface.

   However, there have been increasing sightings of a new type of light effect that scientists could not explain until very recently. This phenomenon is extremely rare and might not be seen at all except for two things: we are in a period of increased solar activity, called a “solar maximum”; and, amateur photographers who search for all kinds of aurorae have been taking pictures of them. Few scientists who study aurorae and other night sky phenomena had ever seen this new type which appears closer to the equators and is characterized by a purple-pink arch accompanied by green picket fence-like stripes. No one knew what to call it, either. It wasn’t until 2016 that one of the photographers - Chris Ratzlaff - proposed on a Face Book group that it should be named “Steve”, after the mysterious tall shrub from a Dreamworks animated film, Over the Hedge. This may be one of the first times any serious scientific phenomenon has been named after a cartoon character. Later, scientists developed an acronym to go with the name:  Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement.

   Although Steve will always appear alongside an aurora, not all auroras include a Steve. It is a distinct phenomenon. It is, in fact, not an aurora at all, but an example of an SAID - a Subauroral Ion Drift. We’ll just leave that there.

   So, when you go out aurora hunting this winter, remember Steve. He’s out there, and if you’re lucky, you might just get the chance to meet him! If you do, be sure to submit your pictures to: https://aurorasaurus.org.

Copyright Hulsey Trusty Designs, L.L.C. (except where noted). All rights reserved.
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Photograph of John Hulsey and Ann Trusty in Glacier National Park
We are artists, authors and teachers with over 40 years of experience in painting the world's beautiful places. We created The Artist's Road in order to share our knowledge and experiences with you, and create a community of like-minded individuals.  You can learn more about us and see our original paintings by clicking on the links below.
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