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Subarctic Hues

Winters Bridge! Fairbanks, Alaska. 2023

There is something special about the north country in the depth of winter. Just a blush of color amidst the many shades of grey that grow deeper each day. Pale pink, yellow, and orange in the sky at sunrise. Deeper purple, burgundy and frozen blue at sunset. The muted green of the taiga and firs. Everywhere, the crystalline display of snow and ice. Brightness and clarity from the crisp, cold light. Colors and hues of the subarctic.

Boreal Sun! Fairbanks, Alaska. 2023

The northern sun in winter lies low in the southern sky, producing long shadows and tremendous depth of field. Never overhead, but off to the side, emphasizing the skyline, backlighting the trees, mountains, and rivers. And always, lending a subtle shading to the surrounding land. In that low-angled light, the sun takes longer to set and so twilight and sunsets seem to last forever. Cold, clean air, a strong jet stream, snow and clouds, low light, and color – the magic of winter in the north.

Stairway to Heaven! Fairbanks, Alaska. 2023

“Our lives at times seem a study in contrast… love & hate, birth & death, right & wrong… everything seen in absolutes of black & white. Too often we are not aware that it is the shades of grey that add depth & meaning to the starkness of those extremes.”

– Ansel Adams

Alaska Range in Winter! Fairbanks, Alaska. 2023

I do love cold landscapes! And the subarctic regions, located in the northern hemisphere, have been a destination, a fantasy, and a motivation for many of my photography adventures. Trips to Alaska, the Yukon, British Columbia, Iceland. Dreams of visiting Scandinavia, Greenland, Northwest Territories, and someday the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Russian Far East. All home to the boreal forest (named for Boreas, the Greek God of the North Wind), and thick forests of spruce, pine and fir, called taiga (with the world’s largest taiga in Russia, stretching some 3,600 miles from the Pacific Ocean to the Ural Mountains).

Birch & Fir! Fairbanks, Alaska. 2023

So, with the call of winter hard upon me, thinking of places I have been or want to visit, visons of winter colors, and the opportunity to (hopefully) experience the northern lights once again, all of this led me to travel back to Fairbanks, Alaska in late January. My wife Stephanie was up for the trip, but most of our other friends balked at visiting the coldest city in the United States.* I guess I can’t blame them, as the mean average temperature for Fairbanks is just under freezing at 27.6 degrees Fahrenheit, and its lowest recorded temperature was -66 degrees in January of 2012. The evening before we arrived it was -16, but it warmed up after that, with periods of sunshine, several days of snow, and eventually reaching a balmy +25 before we left.

Aurora 1. Fairbanks, Alaska. 2023

In Fairbanks, both sunrises and sunsets are beautiful. But it is the night that rules with flickering lights from the aurora borealis, caused by electrical storms in space called substorms. I have been lucky to see the amazing radiance of the aurora before in both Whitehorse (Yukon) and in Fairbanks, where you have a ninety percent chance of seeing the northern lights if you are there three or more nights and are actively looking for them. Steph and I were there for five nights this time, but with clouds and snow the lights were only visible for about two hours on one evening. I had my camera settings set up well beforehand, but a technical glitch (combined with cold, dark, and a short aurora window) didn’t allow me to capture the shots I had hoped for. But I got some, which was better than a week in December in Iceland several years ago (where the solar storms were everywhere except Iceland).

Aurora 2. Fairbanks, Alaska. 2023

It was sublimely beautiful standing in the winter night with colors both in the sky and reflected in the snow. Stars in the background, the moon shedding (mostly unwanted) light from behind, and whites and shades of grey everywhere.

Home in the Snow! Fairbanks, Alaska. 2023

During daylight hours, we spent our time wandering and looking elsewhere for winters soft light and color. Most of our time was spent traveling on the Chena Hot Springs Road. This fifty-six+ mile road is considered one of the best places in Alaska for viewing the northern lights and several years ago Steph and I were thrilled to see the lights by taking a tour out at Chena Hot Springs Resort. This trip, we stayed at the Alaska Grizzly Lodge, a good dark-sky location where you might see the aurora from its back porch, and where your hosts, Janet and Fred, will wake you up if the aurora is on display. If you are not interested in the usual resort experience, stay here. The breakfasts were great, the bed cozy, and we felt we were really in the woods in this Alaskan lodge.

How coldly burns our sun! One would say its rays of light are shards of snow, one imagines the sun lives upon a snow crested peak on this day. One would say she is a woman who wears a gown of winter frost that blinds the eyes.

- Roman Payne

Rough Road to the Sun! Fairbanks, Alaska. 2023

Cold landscapes, Alaska, subarctic, a different world for sure! But beautiful, wonderful, and amazing! I can’t wait to go back next year, and the year after. Currently the aurora is ramping up in solar activity, and will peak in 2024/2025 with the solar max, a regular period of greatest sun activity during the eleven-year solar cycle. I can’t wait to be in Alaska for that!


· Yakutsk, the capital city of Russia’s Sakha Republic, maybe the world’s coldest city (?), plunged to -80.9 degrees Fahrenheit last week on January 18, 2023. The world record for low temperature (-128.6°F) was set at Vostok Station, Antarctica, on 21 July 1983 (NOT going there!).

· Aurora borealis was named in 1619 after the Roman Goddess of dawn, Aurora (sister of Helios, the sun god, and Selene, the moon goddess), and the Greek god Boreas, by Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei. The earliest suspected record of the northern lights is in a 30,000-year-old cave painting in France.

· Auroras Announce the Solar Cycle -- Solar Cycle 25 is underway, and that means more frequent opportunities to see auroras - more commonly known as the northern lights and southern lights. Solar cycles track the activity level of the Sun, our nearest star. A cycle is traditionally measured by the rise and fall in the number of sunspots, but it also coincides with increases in solar flares, coronal mass ejections (CMEs), radio emissions, and other forms of space weather. These bursts of magnetized plasma and energetic waves from the Sun’s atmosphere energize the gases and particles in Earth’s magnetosphere and send them plunging down in colorful light displays in the upper atmosphere.

· What Is the Solar Cycle? The Sun's magnetic field goes through a cycle, called the solar cycle. Every 11 years or so, the Sun's magnetic field completely flips. This means that the Sun's north and south poles switch places. Then it takes about another 11 years for the Sun’s north and south poles to flip back again. The solar cycle affects activity on the surface of the Sun, such as sunspots, which are caused by the Sun's magnetic fields. As the magnetic fields change, so does the amount of activity on the Sun's surface.

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