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The Epoch Times
The Epoch Times
15 Apr 2023

NextImg:PHOTOS: Storm chaser captures auroras during magnetic mayhem, bolts ripping through 'pancake' storm clouds

The storm chaser checked his phone for the umpteenth time. He saw real-time solar wind parameters all lined up for a northern lights display of epic proportions. Indeed, weather photographer Gunjan Sinha, 44, anticipated he was going to have a fun night.

Sinha is blessed with his flat prairie province, Saskatchewan, ranking among the top aurora borealis-sighting spots anywhere, and on this particular night, March 23, he was geared up and ready to intercept a solar storm that held significant promise. “The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a G2-class geomagnetic storm watch with the anticipation of the approaching solar wind stream,” he told The Epoch Times. “I knew this could be a strong auroral event given the perfect timing, only a couple of days after the spring equinox and new moon.” The moonless sky was ideal for discerning rare aurora colors such as reds, purples, and even blues.

The aurora-generating solar winds arrived earlier in the day than he expected—around 5 a.m. that morning—so Sinha waited anxiously for 12 hours, hoping conditions would hold out. Hold out they did. He wouldn’t be disappointed.

“I checked the weather models and made sure I knew what direction from town I needed to go for clear skies all night,” he said. “I also went through my marked locations around town on Google Earth and picked the one where I had not gone yet, and luckily it was right within the area where the best chance of cloudless sky was.” With camera and gear all fully charged, fuel tank topped up, and car ready to go, the storm chaser hit the dark, frozen country roads on the hunt for aurora borealis.

Aurora borealis light up the sky over Saskatchewan, Canada. (Courtesy of Gunjan Sinha)

He headed north of Saskatoon where little light pollution distracts. Excessive snowdrifts forced him down a few detours and as he saw dancing lights overhead he entertained stopping where he was; luckily he didn’t and continued on for he had the perfect foreground all planned out. It wouldn’t be the “moderate” G2 storm they had predicted after all, but a “severe” G4 solar storm instead. Meanwhile, a “coronal hole” made manifest that night, resulting from the Russel-McPherron effect, causing stronger-than-usual aurora displays with various interacting gasses in the atmosphere. It all added up to the perfect solar storm photoshoot.

He soon parked. And then he saw them. “In addition to the regular green and white colors, I clearly saw red, pink, and purple auroras,” he said. “They were moving fast at times, and the brightness was enough to light up the entire ground.”

There were several showstoppers that night: The “most vibrant” display shone over a snow-covered country road around, or shortly after, 9 o’clock, a small abandoned house in the foreground and to the right, among many across the province. Closer to midnight, widespread auroras danced over an old Ukrainian Orthodox church in a transcendental wonderland. A third notable photograph was taken around midnight as an “aurora curtain” and distinct pink band hung across a wintry prairie landscape.

A vibrant display looking directly north along a country road north of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, with a small abandoned house seen to the right. (Courtesy of Gunjan Sinha)

Looking southeast, an aurora hangs over an old Ukrainian Orthodox church in the foreground, north of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. (Courtesy of Gunjan Sinha)

Around midnight local time, looking north, a distinct pink color can be seen along the bottom of an “aurora curtain” hanging over a wintry Saskatchewan prairie landscape. (Courtesy of Gunjan Sinha)

According to Sinha, green is the most common aurora color and is caused by charged particles colliding with oxygen molecules some 100-300 kilometers above ground level. Pink is another common color, occurring at an altitude of 100 kilometers. Spectacular reds are somewhat rarer and they hang much higher, somewhere between 300-400 kilometers over the Earth’s crust.

When he isn’t chasing geomagnetic events in the dead of night during winter, Sinha is “playing chess” with severe storm weather during summer. Glued to his phone for real-time weather data, as usual, he aims to “stay one step ahead of the most photogenic part of the storm.” When it comes to tangoing with tornadoes, one wrong step and it’s “checkmate,” he said, “either in terms of losing the photo op or getting run over by the storm itself.”

A bolt of lightning strikes through storm cloud “pancakes” in Alliance, Nebraska. (Courtesy of Gunjan Sinha)

Some of his best storm photographs entail experience and pure luck, for example, a bolt of lightning dropping through a “stacked pancake” of storm clouds in Alliance, Nebraska—luck of the draw and nothing more. Then there was the time he skillfully anticipated a tornado warning that developed into “the most incredible” shelf cloud he had ever seen over Fillmore, Saskatchewan. There was also the cloud-to-ground bolt he captured during a mesocyclone which “says it all,” and that happened in the skies over Mission, South Dakota, last year—another rarity.

Working by day, playing tag with storms by night, or by leisure hours, the aurora chaser constantly juggles his hobby. But the rewards of fulfillment and inner peace outweigh the pains. It’s more than worth it. “I do not have any plan to stop doing what I enjoy so much,” Sinha said. “Chasing and capturing storms, auroras, landscapes, and all other beautiful parts of nature is like meditation to me and brings me tremendous joy.”

Brilliant red, purple, and green aurora hang over the skies of Saskatchewan, Canada, north of Saskatoon. (Courtesy of Gunjan Sinha)

Green and pink auroras light up the skies over Saskatchewan, Canada. (Courtesy of Gunjan Sinha)

A shelf cloud seen over Fillmore, Saskatchewan, Canada. (Courtesy of Gunjan Sinha)

Red, purple, and green auroras seen in the skies north of Saskatoon, Canada. (Courtesy of Gunjan Sinha)

Multi-colored auroras light up with reds, pinks, greens, and purples over the skies north of Saskatoon, Canada. (Courtesy of Gunjan Sinha)

Northern lights seen over an old Ukrainian Orthodox church north of Saskatoon, Canada. (Courtesy of Gunjan Sinha)

Brilliant green and pink northern lights seen over Saskatchewan, Canada. (Courtesy of Gunjan Sinha)

Multi-colored northern lights hang over an old Ukrainian Orthodox church north of Saskatoon, Canada. (Courtesy of Gunjan Sinha)

An aurora corona seen in the skies of Saskatchewan, Canada. (Courtesy of Gunjan Sinha)

A bright pink and green aurora with a characterful Canadian barn in the foreground. (Courtesy of Gunjan Sinha)

A cloud-to-ground lightning bolt is seen during a mesocyclone in Mission, South Dakota. (Courtesy of Gunjan Sinha)

A spectacular storm structure hangs in the air near a country road. (Courtesy of Gunjan Sinha)

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