Hot Ash

The start of the Ontake eruption, September 27, 2014.

The start of the Ontake eruption, September 27, 2014.

Yesterday’s news out of Japan was the unexpected eruption of a volcano. Hikers – some of them weekend strollers taking pictures of fall colours – were overtaken when the sleeping volcano expelled its nasty breath. Witnesses said that they thought the explosion was thunder. The idea that the quiet mountain might be active was a remote thought. But ash soon piled a metre deep. And at least 30 people are dead.

Volcanic ash at Ontake, Japan.

Volcanic ash at Ontake, Japan.

The central Japan volcano, Ontake-san, is the second highest in the country. The 3,000-metre mountain was calm enough to encourage hundreds of weekend walkers to enjoy the trek along trails and up concrete steps to the rim of the mountain. But the volcano’s sudden expulsion of ash created a mad scramble to get off the volcano. Dozens of hikers near the top were overcome by the ash. On Sunday, the rescue operation involved more than 500 troops, police officers and firefighters who searched for injured survivors and whisked them away by helicopter.

This unexpected tragedy was localized – one puff of ash on one mountain in one country. It will not have environmental consequences around the globe. It is hard to imagine that any volcano can affect weather a hemisphere away, but such things have happened.

Nearly two hundred years ago (in April, 1815), the largest eruption in at least 10,000 years did change the world’s climate. Millions of tonnes of ash were expelled from the Indonesian volcano Tambora. Its ashes encircled the globe, causing havoc by shading and cooling the planet. The dust was suspended in the sky for months, concentrated in a cloud drifting over North America where it created “The Year without a Summer” in 1816. In the United States, late spring frosts killed crops.

For weeks, the sky was shrouded by a red fog, making daylight dark. Ice was reported on Pennsylvania rivers and lakes in July and August. Crop failures inflated food prices. Corn increased from 12 cents a bushel to nearly a dollar. Temperatures dropped to minus thirty in New York City that winter. Directly due to the big chill, Vermont’s population dropped by 15,000 people (substantial in those days). Among those who left Vermont were the family of Joseph Smith, who moved from Sharon, Vermont, to Palmyra, New York. Had his family never moved, Smith would not have found the golden tablets buried near Palmyra, the tablets would have gone untranslated, Book of Mormon would not exist, and today’s 15 million Mormons would all be Southern Baptists. Prompting us to think that perhaps the god Elohim left his planet near the star Kolob long enough to explode the volcano, change the climate, and put the Smith family on the road. Might have been easier for him to just plant the tablets in Vermont.

Built out of volcanic ashes.

Built on a rainy day out of volcanic ashes.

The Tambora ash cloud drifted onwards to Europe, resulting in disaster for wheat, oats, and potato crops. Riots and looting broke out as desperate people pillaged grain houses. The veil of ash continued to block the sun. There were famines in Wales, failed monsoons in China, an ice-dam break in Switzerland. In June 1816, non-stop rainfall forced Mary Shelley, John William Polidori, and their friends to stay indoors for much of their Swiss holiday. To pass time, they had a contest to see who could write the scariest story. Shelley wrote Frankenstein and Lord Byron wrote “A Fragment”, which Polidori later used as his inspiration for The Vampyre — a precursor to Dracula. All of this was the result of a single volcanic eruption in Indonesia — and the boredom of a group of storm-stayed young people.

Can anything good come from a volcano? Other than stories like Frankenstein and Dracula? Well, volcanic ash, rich in potassium, helps farms do well on the slopes of volcanoes. Near Pompeii, pumice from volcanoes was used as paving stones. Islands grow from the sea (think Hawaii). But far more importantly, the Earth’s environment was originally shaped by volcanoes. Life as we know it would not exist, except for belching volcanic gases that saturated the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, leading to plants which, in turn, converted most of that CO2 into O2.

However, Japan’s Ontake-san (-san means both honourable and mountain, depending on context) is unlikely to either change the climate or inspire horror literature. It will probably remain a local tragedy, a sad and somber time for the friends and families of the casual weekend hikers who were overcome by one brief puff of ash from one of Earth’s many unremarkable volcanoes.

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Those who can’t, teach…

Today, September 25, would be the 171st birthday of Thomas Chrowder Chamberlin. A discouraging character to honour. Born in 1843, by 1900 his ideas about science education and the scientific method came to dominate American science. Not all of his ideas were awful. But many were.

First the good stuff. Chamberlin advocated a system he called “Multiple Working Hypotheses” which suggested that a scientific investigation should begin with a number of potential solutions (hypotheses), any of which might be the correct one. This contrasts somewhat from what we normally consider the modern approach of testing a (single) working hypothesis. But it was Chamberlin’s intention to prevent his University of Chicago students from brashly adhering to a single pet solution. He called such a preference a “parental affection for a theory…  To avoid this grave danger, the method of multiple working hypotheses is urged. It differs from the simple working hypothesis in that it distributes the effort and divides the affections.” As I said, this is good stuff.  Not only that, but let me lift this little piece directly from “Studies for Students: The Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses” from his 1897 paper published in the Journal of Geology:

“The dearest doctrines, the most fascinating hypotheses, the most cherished creations of the reason and of the imagination perish from a mind thoroughly inspired with the scientific spirit in the presence of incompatible facts. Previous intellectual affections are crushed without hesitation and without remorse. Facts are placed before reasonings and before ideals, even though the reasonings and the ideals be more beautiful, be seemingly more lofty, be seemingly better, be seemingly truer. The seemingly absurd and the seemingly impossible are sometimes true. The scientific disposition is to accept facts upon evidence, however absurd they may appear to our pre-conceptions.”

All of this sounds very enlightened, very progressive. Facts before ideals. The seemingly absurd and impossible are sometimes true. Yet, it would be hard to find a more intellectually conservative scientist, a scientist more wed to ideals than facts, than T.C. Chamberlin. He somehow could not practice what he taught.

Chamberlin was the son of a Wisconsin Methodist circuit-preacher. He became a state geologist and head of the U of Wis geology department. When the University of Chicago was founded, he was invited to set up the geology program there and become its head. He held the job for 26 years, until age 75. Shortly after arriving in Chicago, he founded the extremely influential Journal of Geology (which he used as a personal megaphone) and he was president of the Chicago Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was arguably the most politically powerful scientist in America.

But Chamberlin promoted some strange, unfounded, ideas. He believed humans originated in Europe (“and gave rise to the most virile and progressive branches of the human family, the fair-white and the dark-white races”); he taught that the Earth was formed cold, “not white hot” as nearly all other scientists accepted at the time; and he strongly supported Lord Kelvin’s extremely low estimate of the Earth’s age, even after it was commonly recognized as wrong by a factor of 200. Chamberlin alleged, “individual geologists, reacting impatiently against the restraints of stinted time-limits imposed on traditional grounds have inconsiderately cast aside all time limits.” Being inconsiderate of Chamberlin’s failing and aging traditional ideas about geology could ruin a young geologist’s career. He further complained that some geologists assumed the Earth was ageless, allowing them to explain any process by “reckless drafts on the bank of time.” Chamberlin is especially remembered for his uncompromising opposition to Wegener’s theory. Sadly, it seems Chamberlin based his notions on dogmatic principles and sought to influence discourse by preventing publication of contrary opinions. If there had ever been an example of a scientist in an extremely high position influencing the course of inquiry in a determinedly wrong direction, it was Thomas Chamberlin. Or perhaps his son, Rollin.

T.C. Chamberlin was elderly, but active, when the first American edition of Wegener’s Continental Displacement appeared, so it was mostly left to his son Rollin to dismiss Wegener as a crank. Rollin’s friend F.J. Pettijohn, writing for the National Academy of Sciences in 1970, asserts Rollin “was not an innovator, not one to depart much from traditional thought patterns. He had, indeed, severe handicaps to overcome – having so preeminent a father and remaining in the institution in which he was educated.” As we have seen, Rollin Chamberlin’s father founded the University of Chicago’s Geology Department. That’s where Rollin was an undergraduate, was awarded his geology PhD in 1907 – and spent all but three years of his entire career as a member of that same school’s geology faculty.  Immediately upon his father’s death in 1923, R.T. Chamberlin became editor of his father’s Journal of Geology, a position he clung to for 24 years.

Chamberlin, described as a conservative in every way, opposed Alfred Wegener’s theory so staunchly that very few geologists rose in support of continental mobility. Pettijohn, who also saw no merit in moving the continents, described Chamberlin’s contributions to tectonic theory as based on field studies and on “Philosophical considerations . . . he held rigidly to the notion of the permanence of the continents and ocean basins and he gave short treatment to the concept of drifting continents.” At a 1926 conference, Chamberlin denounced every aspect of Wegener’s drift hypothesis, adding it “does not fit the generally accepted record of geological time. The framework of the present continents was developed in pre-Cambrian time. Geological evidence does not show that a great continental mass split apart.” To be sure he was not misunderstood, Chamberlin added that Wegener’s hypothesis “takes considerable liberty with our globe, and is less bound by restrictions or tied down by awkward, ugly facts than most of its rival theories. Its appeal seems to lie in the fact that it plays a game in which there are few restrictive rules and no sharply drawn code of conduct.”

Later, in 1928, Chamberlin quoted an unnamed colleague, “If we are to believe Wegener’s hypothesis, we must forget everything which has been learned in the last 70 years and start all over again.” He was right, but not in the manner he expected. But his words carried enormous weight and his opposition to continental drift impeded geology for decades. It set back earth sciences for two generations and prevented open, fair, and free discourse about Wegener’s theory of continental drift. All of this from the man who espoused multiple working hypothesis and from that man’s obedient son.

The story of the Chamberlins and their influence on anti-drift theory is covered in more detail in my book The Mountain Mystery.

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Popular, but Wrong

We don’t usually celebrate a man’s death, and we are not doing that here. But William Matthew (1871-1930) died on this date in 1930, and his appearance on my geo-calendar was a reminder to me to think about this popular lecturer.  Popular, but wrong about a lot of things.

Misplaced Mesosaur

The misplaced Mesosaurus

Will Matthew was born in Canada and became interested in biogeography – the study of how and why various bits of biology end up in various geographic locales. At the peak of his career, geologists were becoming concerned about the bewildering number of identical fossil species that were being found in widely separated parts of the globe. According to Darwin, whose theories were extremely popular among geologists of Matthew’s time, if creatures evolve in isolation, differing environmental factors always cause divergence, especially after millions of years. Yet, identical fossils of the Mesosaurus, a giant extinct reptile, had its fossils in both South America and Africa – and nowhere else in the world.  And there were hundreds of other examples.

We know now that these fossil homologies are due to drifting continents. The separated fossils were not separated until after Pangaea ruptured. You can see what that means in the USGS map just above. But the idea of drifting continents was not popular a hundred years ago. In fact, most reputable geologists, like William Matthew, thought it was a preposterous notion.

Around 1915, William Matthew argued that the problematic species distributions were adequately explained by Panamanian-style isthmus connections. Matthew combined land bridges and cycles of climate change, suggesting these regularly caused some animals to move away from northern regions towards the south, populating South America and Australia, for example.For the Mesosaurus, the loping reptile would have wandered along a narrow critter highway connecting Namibia and Argentina, perhaps.

For more problematic areas, he invoked the idea of “rafting” which is what you might guess – creatures clinging to floating logs, drifting across oceans, colonizing new areas. On the basis of his field work in Asia, Matthew also proposed that humans evolved in Mongolia, then spread to the rest of the world. He was remarkably influential in broadcasting his speculations, many of which later proved erroneous. Matthew was a gifted teacher and became a curator at the American Museum of Natural History, a job he held for over thirty years.

From his museum post, he taught huge undergraduate palaeontology classes with as many as 900 students in attendance. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, but was ultimately disqualified when it was discovered that even after living in the United States for forty years, he was not a citizen, having maintained his Canadian nationality. Because of the enormous respect held for Matthew by North American scientists, his rejection of mobile continents and his alternative solutions for fossil distribution helped persuade a generation of geologists to simply chortle at the idea of continents adrift. But who’s chortling now?

Occasionally, rafting was a useful mechanism for species dispersal.

Occasionally, rafting was a useful mechanism for species dispersal.

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Mud Flood

September 21, 2014 mud flood on Mount Shasta

September 21, 2014 mud flood on Mount Shasta

Mud at 100 kilometres an hour? It happens. Mount Shasta, in northern California, let loose this afternoon with one heck of a mud flood, apparently caused by a sudden melt of one of its glaciers. Probably not at a hundred kilometres an hour.

The volcanoes of the Pacific Northwest are strikingly beautiful. But it is a haunting beauty. Each time I have looked towards Washington’s gorgeous Mount Baker from Victoria, in Canada, 100 kilometres across the Juan de Fuca Strait, I have had an unnerving sense of the terror that will one day come. On bright clear days, Baker fills the horizon, though often the foot of the mountain is shrouded in mist. On those days, the volcano seems to float eerily above the clouds. The haunting comes, in part, from the knowledge that this mountain will one day violently shake off the lovely glacial ice that coats its shoulders. When this happen, lahars, or volcanic mudflows, will churn hot gas, rocks, and millions of tonnes of slushed glacier into a slurry that will rush down the slope at a daunting velocity. Even at 100 kilometres per hour, a lahar has the consistency of concrete; when it solidifies, the material becomes cement, encrusting the mangled debris it has accumulated on its slide down the mountain

Mount Baker is presently somewhat quiet, having expelled a few belches of gas in 1975, and has had little to say since. The United States Geological Survey is more concerned about nearby Mount Rainier, which has more ice than Baker, is a more active volcano, and sits atop Seattle. Six thousand years ago, Mount Rainier shot lahars down valleys where tens of thousands of homes now stand. Those flows were 150 metres deep and pushed all the way to Puget Sound, 50 kilometres away. Mount Shasta can be expected to perform a similar stunt one day.

Today’s Shasta shake was apparently not due to volcanic activity or any associated earth tremors. Just good old-fashioned glacial melting. This has closed some bridges and muddied some highways, but so far no one is known to have been injured.

Mount Shasta in 2011

Mount Shasta in 2011

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A Cultural Backlash

There seems to be a cultural backlash against science. Some of my liberal friends blame science for the evils of neonicotinoids, GMOs, and vaccines. They are wrong, of course. My conservative friends decry science for promoting Darwinism, the Earth’s real age, and critical reasoning. They are wrong, too. So often, it seems, rational thought is trashed in favour of emotion, tradition, or politically motivated goals.

However, it also seems that science is slowly winning the war. Today, there are very few troglodytes advocating for a flat Earth occupying the centre of the universe, even though that had been the religious status quo for over a thousand years. (Although they still exist, as attested in the painful video to your left.) Hard to believe, but as recently as the 1800s, an Irish intellectual named Richard Kirwan believed that all matter consists of just the basic Aristotelian elements.  Fire, said Kirwan, is an element liberated from matter when it’s burnt. He spent years trying to prove the idea, but died as the last scientific phlogistonian on Earth. Aristotle’s basic elements of Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water were replaced by about 100 elemental elements. Sometimes our brains stubbornly resist the wooing of science, but critical examination of nature relentlessly chips away at the thinning veneer of traditional thought.

Science is not always “right”. But that’s the wonderful thing about it, isn’t it? Put a new idea out on the block (along with your neck) and you have the chance to have it cut off or a chance to fly into Oslo to give an acceptance speech. Science is not static. It is alive and constantly changing. Yesterday’s truth about stationary continents became today’s truth about plate tectonics. And one day something new may replace the way that we imagine tectonics works.

Although there is a cultural backlash against science, it might not be so different from the general tendency to resist change of any sort. A staid vested interest group sees little advantage in rejecting the world they built and maintained, even if they see the walls of their towers crumbling. It takes a brave and bright soul to rebel against the frozen inherited truths of former generations.

One scientist who understands this very well is Jason Morgan. It was Morgan who first explained the rigid plates of plate tectonics and described them mathematically by drawing upon Euler’s theorem of rotation of surface fragments upon a sphere. In the 1960s, when his papers were being hailed as the harbinger of the new paradigm, Morgan became world-renowned for his mathematical description of plate motion. A colleague once asked Morgan what he could possibly do about plate tectonics to make an even greater name for himself. “I don’t know. Prove it wrong, I guess.”

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The Billion Year Discovery

All that sparkles is not gold. It could be zircon.

All that sparkles is not gold. It could be zircon.

About a century ago, a college student figured out that the Earth has rocks over a billion years old. Until Arthur Holmes’ experiments at Imperial College in London, geologists could only guess at the age of various rock formations. Geologist knew that Devonian rocks are older than Jurassic, for example, but they did not have any real idea if the age difference was tens or hundreds of millions of years. Fossils of jawless fish  embedded in Devonian layers were definitely more primitive than bipedal Jurassic dinosaurs. And Devonian rocks are buried under younger Jurassic. So, there was never an argument that Devonian was older. But how much older?

Arthur Holmes, 1912

Arthur Holmes, 1912

21-year-old Arthur Holmes came up with the answer. He used the simple fact that the element lead rarely appears in the common zircon mineral, but uranium frequently does. And uranium transforms into lead at a fixed speed. By counting the number of lead atoms in a sample, and comparing that with the amount of uranium, he realized he could figure out the age of the zircon. Before we get into the nuts and bolts of the calculation, let’s follow young Holmes from his home in north England to his lab in London.

From the book, The Mountain Mystery:

Arthur Holmes was born in Gateshead, England, a gloomy and remote coastal town in the northeast, a spare place of windswept barren bogs and heaths.  Reverend John Wesley, the first Methodist, arrived there in a blizzard in 1785, and described it as a pathless waste inhabited mainly by “tinkers, gypsies, pitmen, and quarrymen.”  In bringing his good news to Gateshead, Wesley must have been at least partly successful – Holmes grew up in a Methodist family. Of that, Holmes says he was puzzled, as a child, to read the Earth’s Creation date printed in the family Bible. It appeared at the beginning of the book’s summary of the world’s chronology – 4004 BC – the year Bishop Ussher had calculated. “I was puzzled by the odd ‘4.’ Why not a nice round 4000? And how could anyone know?” Holmes would prove the Earth’s age was in the billions, not thousands, of years. At 17, he escaped dreary Gateshead and studied physics and geology at Imperial College in London. For food, lodging, and class fees, he survived on a scholarship of £5 per month – about $300 today.

Holmes performed the world’s first uranium radiometric dating. The rock he tested was an astounding billion years old. He published his results in 1911, as “The association of lead with uranium in rock-minerals, and its application to the measurement of geologic time.” It was revolutionary. Barely past his teenage years, Holmes created a brilliant geological technique still used a hundred years later.

Until Holmes’s experiments, few guessed the planet might be over a thousand million years old. Nor had they ever had an actual number, a nearly precise value, rather than a vague notion of timelessness. Holmes continued to refine the way radioactive decay revealed deep time. By 1927, he revised his estimate to three billion years. By the early 1940s, Holmes figured the Earth had had a solid crust for about 4.5 billion years. With a minor correction, this is still considered valid. The reason for Holmes’ revisions is related to the way radioactive isotopes were becoming understood and the way measuring techniques and equipment became increasingly accurate.

In the early days, radioactive dating was like using an ancient grandfather’s clock, tinkering to get the time right, knowing it will be somewhat reliable, but never perfectly accurate.  The nuclear clock has been steadily ticking away ever since elements coalesced. Physicists found it works like this: Radioactive materials change with time at a steady, predictable rate. They lose their radio-activity as their unstable bits shed energy and become stable forms of matter. For example, uranium can be dangerously radioactive, emitting cancer-causing rays or exploding in nuclear bombs. Inside the Earth, radiation releases enormous amounts of energy, keeping our planet’s interior hot with energetic material slowly transforming into permanent forms. Once uranium has shed some of its mass as energy and settled into a life of lead, it is stable and non-radioactive. In a rock sample, a comparison of the amount of uranium with the amount of lead yields its age. A specimen with quite a bit of uranium and virtually no lead is young. As it ages, there is more and more lead.

Given enough time, a considerable portion of the unstable uranium ends up as the stable element lead. Physicists cannot predict when any individual atom will spontaneously transform, but a lump of granite has billions of unstable atoms, so scientists predict the percentage of material that will undergo the change each second.

Even though the transformation of any single uranium atom is unpredictable, the average rate is precisely known. Half of the unstable isotope U-235 becomes lead (Pb-207) in 704 million years. In twice the time period, 1,408 million years, three-quarters of the original U-235 is Pb-207. For this particular kind of uranium, geologists simply compare the proportions of lead and uranium. You may wonder how they account for any lead already in the lump of granite when the rock first formed. It is easy – there wasn’t any.

Uranium is sometimes found in the mineral zircon. Zircon is a common mineral, plenty is found in ancient crustal rocks. Pure zircon has one zirconium, one silicon, and four oxygen atoms stitched together in a molecule. When zircon molecules form, uranium frequently sneaks in, replacing the zirconium atom. Then you have a molecule with one uranium, one silicon, and four oxygen atoms. Lead never combines this way during zircon’s formation – there is never a newly formed zircon molecule with a lead atom replacing the zirconium atom. Geologists inspecting zircon minerals in igneous rocks realize every bit of  lead in the mix is there only because in its former life, the lead was uranium, and then radioactively decayed into lead. They can be certain that a bit on zircon with equal amounts U-235 and Pb-207 is 704 million years old.

With this technique, Holmes was able to show that jawless Devonian fish fossils were about 400 million years old while Jurassic dinosaurs were common 150 million years ago. At last, a real number, in years, rather than the former “very old” and “very, very old” that geologists had use before Arthur Holmes gave them the dates.

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The Bright Side of Solar Flares

Northern Lights over Calgary

Northern Lights over Calgary

Electronics destroyed. Skin radiated. Mutations. Cancer. And if the GPS is down, how will anyone find their way home? But there is a bright side to solar flares. And that would be last night’s light show. For those of us in Canada, a bit of spark in the air adds to the atmosphere of the place. Here’s how the Aurora works.

The sun has a lot of weird stuff going on. It occasionally erupts with solar flares that spit out coronal mass ejections. Some times those head directly towards the Earth. This week, according to the Space Weather Prediction Center, a G3 geomagnetic storm resulted when two flares from sunspot AR2158 flung their charged particles our way. A G3 is about midpoint on the mag-storm scale. A “Strong” blast, but not the worst we’ve ever seen. Lucky for us, the Earth’s magnetic field does a pretty fair job of trapping the energy. Our only real problem with such storms are burnt power grids and disrupted satellite radio and navigation equipment. In 1989, a geomagnetic storm knocked out the Hydro-Québec electric grid.  Millions were without power for half a day.

On the lighter side, the aurora, or northern lights, were reportedly brilliant in parts of Canada and the northern states. I have seen the display spectacularly only a few times – once as a child, in Pennsylvania when the whole family stood in the orchard, marveling at “Whatever the hell that is,” as my father called it. Later, as a youngster in northern Saskatchewan, I was driving a truck at 2 in the morning, hauling some equipment across the province, when I realized the sky was on fire. Curtains of red and green and yellow and orange hung there, as if a draper were selling me his wares. The fabric slowly changed shapes, angles, and colours. I am sure I heard the fizzy snapping of the storm – sort of like a poorly connected fluorescent light tube. It was so fascinating that I powered down the truck, stretched out on the hood, and stared at the heavens for a full hour.

The northern lights mean more than a dazzling light show. They mean you should hold on to your stock portfolio. As far back as astronomer William Herschel (1738-1822), the German-born English composer who discovered the planet Uranus, economics, sunspots, and the aurora have been inexplicably and incorrectly linked. Herschel said the price of wheat is correlated to the number of sunspots – the more spots, the higher the price. It may have been a brief correlation at the time, but there is no causative connection. And no justification for the lingering belief that sunspots (which can created northern lights) make people happy. Which make them buy more junk which improves markets which raises stock prices. People believe the most interesting things.

Last night, here in Calgary, we poked our heads out the door every few minutes, hoping the clouds would clear. But alas, no luck. Calgary has lousy stargazing weather. This is a dry part of the world, nearly desert, and we are at 3,000 metres elevation. So, one would expect mostly clear skies. But almost invariably, clouds build each evening, obscuring our view of anything but the undersides of those growing clouds. In the late evening, there was a brief clearing, but not much aurora to report. When I awoke at 4 this morning (geophysicists start their day early), the sky was completely obscured. Time to sell my Celestron shares.

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Post-post addendum: just came across this video from a researcher in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada. The film is in real time and gives a great view of the dynamics of a strong aurora:

Northern lights in Yellowknife. Captured in 2013 by

Northern lights in Yellowknife. Captured in real time in 2013.  Go to the video: here.

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