Rising canopies, shifting habitats, and declining deer

Blakely illuminated

Witnessing Aurora Borealis

Blakely Island is known for its “magic.” Professors and students who visit often note the island’s unique power to create bonds, bring you closer to God, and reveal great truths about the world. Though it’s common for students to look back and reflect on “Blakely magic,” it’s less common to be struck by it all at once, much less on your first night.

Late on the night of May 11, 2024, we set out from the SPU field station to experience something rare: a geomagnetic storm with an auroral zone so massive it reached as far south as the Caribbean—one like it had not been seen in two decades. In fact, NPR’s Regina G. Barber and Rebecca Ramirez referenced the most significant solar storm in recorded history, the 1859 Carrington Event, to contextualize the weekend’s storm.

The road to the viewpoint was rough, even for Blakley. I subdued my video stabilization worries as the van buzzed with excitement and a healthy bit of pragmatism. Of course, we hoped we would see the northern lights, but expecting more when already at a place as special as Blakely almost seems indulgent.

We made it through the dense tree canopy and to the top of the viewpoint hill. We could finally see the sky. At first, we could make out faint streaks of yellow-green. They stretched from the waters of the Sound to what looked to be the edge of the atmosphere. There was already a sense of awe in the group. At this point, however, only our surprisingly powerful phone cameras could capture the more vivid greens and yellows with added purples, reds, and blues.

As the initial wonder of seeing any trace of the aurora borealis faded a bit, we settled into the hill’s rather comfortable thick moss. The group seemed content with squinting to catch the lights. But it wasn’t long before we were struck with awe again.

The sky exploded. Straight above us was what seemed to be some “eye of the storm.” The beams of color now showed the vivid hues we had only been able to see on our screens before. There were audible gasps, wows, exhilarated laughter, and even a bit of applause. It was a sight unlike any of us had seen. Members of the group, like Bruce Congdon, Peg Achterman, Eric Long, and Ryan Ferrer (all emeritus or current professors at SPU and seasoned scholars), said they had never witnessed something quite like it. We all were astounded to see it so close to home.

Looking straight up at this inconceivably large iris-like shape was an otherworldly experience. From a scientific standpoint, it quite literally is; the sun constantly emits charged particles known as “solar wind.” Given the right circumstances, these particles meet Earth’s magnetic field, which channels them toward the poles. The particles then collide with the planet’s atmospheric gasses, exciting gas molecules enough to produce visible light of various colors, each caused by different gasses. It’s the same concept as the “flame tests” from chemistry class that use chemical-soaked paper and Bunsen burners.

In the moment, though, there was no room for scientific thought in my head. Times like this don’t really require immediate attempts at rational thought. The experience of the heavens lighting up around you and reflecting off the miles of water between you and “civilization” is enough to take your breath away. If you’re like me, it’s also enough to solidify those beliefs in you that there is something bigger than us who can bless us with revelations like this.

Thatcher’s legacy