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Northern Lights (Walter Joseph and Tom Burbee) 

Today on cick news. It's time to look up way up.  The Northern lights have been putting on a show for us northerners this winter. So I'm speaking to Walter, Joseph Wet'suwet'en and photographer and fisheries and wildlife manager. Walter often posts, stunning photos of the night sky and your haggle get. And this year he has shared a number of photos of Aurora Borealis. 

That might be exciting enough to pull some amateur photographers out of bed in the middle of the night. 

Walter is sharing some apps and conditions to watch out for when you can get a glimpse of the Northern lights  here in the bulky valley and 

I'm also speaking with Tom Burbee in terrace. He is part of the terrace astronomy club and is also a photographer whose photos you really need to see if you follow him on Facebook or Instagram at Tom Burbee photography. 

Tom is sharing what's happening in the atmosphere. When you can see the Northern lights. As well, what tech is available and free to help alert you of the next Aurora siting in Northern BC. Also in both interviews, you're going to hear the term KP a lot or KP index, which describes the disturbance of the Earth's magnetic field caused by the solar wind. 

And the faster that the solar wind blows the greater the turbulence. So the index ranges from zero or low activity to nine, which is the highest, which means that an intense geomagnetic storm is underway. And you're very, very, very likely to see the Northern lights with a higher index. 

Now let's hear my interview with Walter Joseph in a kind of noisy cafe in downtown Smithers.  

 Hi, I'm Walter Joseph. What is your history with the area?

Our family is, uh, Wet'suwet'en and lived in the Hawgliget area.  So when did you start taking photos? Uh, I. Film when I was quite young. Mm-hmm. . But  it's very expensive when you're bringing up a young family, so kind of fell out of it.

Mm-hmm. , I didn't have very good equipment either, so.  and hidden focus was real difficult. So it was a real, uh, change once the digital cameras came out. Doesn't matter how much pictures you take, you could take thousands. 

What kind of camera? It was a Cannon fd. Okay. Yeah. Yeah, it was, I thought it was absolutely great, but then recently I got an adapter and tried the lens on it and, That lens is just awful. . I could see why I had trouble hitting focus with it. Oh, yeah. Was it dirty or was it just that it's different glass? No, just real cheap lens.

 So tell me what also what got you interested? Why did you wanna start taking photos? Well, mainly my work. , working in, uh, wit that canyon there, there's always, um, really interesting stuff going on. Yeah. It's an action-packed place. Yeah. Yeah. There's lots of action. There's a lot of good characters and it's, uh, a lot of the culture is  straight in the canyon there.

Yeah. So record. Became really interesting. Just kept upgrading my equipment and eventually settled with a, with a pretty good system. Yeah. Yeah. The nice thing with digital too is like you mentioned, you can take thousands of photos, but also that good cameras are getting smaller and smaller. Yeah. So you're more likely to take it out with you because it's easy to carry.

Yeah. Well, yeah. The camera I got was mainly due to the size. Mm-hmm. , like I've seen some photographers with some of their systems look like they're carrying around a suitcase. Yeah. . Yeah, , one of the guys seemed pretty pleased with his camera, but when he's gonna take a picture, look like he's doing weightlifting, 

 Okay, so just this week you posted that the weather report was favorable, uh, for photographing the Northern Lights. So can you tell me what are the favorable conditions for photographing the Northern Lights?

 Yeah, I just keep an eye on, uh, I have an app on Android called, Aurora Forecast. Okay. Yeah. So in there you could select, uh, it'll, it'll pick up your location and give you a forecast for Aurora. Oh, cool. So it gives you an index, a KP index. 

And it's just showing over the horizon. Okay. And, uh, As it gets up to three or greater, then you could get a nice show. Oh, nice. And last night I hit up to seven. Oh my gosh. Seven. And I think high is a nine. 

Okay. So you could use the app, but um, so you have the app, but then what else are you.  Yeah. Clear skies. Mm-hmm. , I have an app for that too. Oh, nice. Yeah. It's called, uh, clear, clear Outside. Mm-hmm. . So it'll, you could select a location and, uh, It'll give you a forecast for the, for even up to the week.

Yep. Um, what did you do before all these apps and everything were you take, were you photographing them then? Or when did you start ? My son would often step outside for a cigarette. Oh. He'd give me a heads up. Oh, they smokes. Come look at this. So you have the smoke out

 What is it about the Northern Lights that intrigues you?

Well, it's, I'm always interested in astronomy. Mm-hmm. , and before I got into the Northern Lights too much, uh, I'd complained somewhat, gee, the Northern lights are messing up the stars.  . But now I can look for that. So if you couldn't beat them, join them. Yep. 

Some shows are just incredible. Yeah. Yeah. I remember looking at them with my dad and just see curtains waving across the sky. Yeah. Yeah.  Where's been your favorite? Right around Hak get. Yeah. Yeah. And when it gets really good displays, it goes right across the sky.

Yeah. Yeah. So when that happens, uh, you'd even get northern lights over, uh, stick yield and, yeah. The, the mountain that I think most people follow me for. Facebook is, uh, looking at the local mountains.  

So when you're photographing, do you stay kind of, uh, in town or do you trek out to higher ground? What's kind of the, the trick for you Depends on conditions.

 I usually try to take shots of, uh, sticky Oin before I go anywhere. Mm-hmm. . And if it's clear enough, I'd try to go out to Kita and get the seven sisters. So there's a few spots around there that, uh, other photographers are key and then non twos . Yeah. So that's, uh, there's some good spots, right?

Yeah. Yeah. . Um, do you ever like to go with someone or do you like to go on your own? Uh, mostly I go, I go, uh, alone. Mm-hmm. . Cause Janine's probably the only other photographer I've been out out with. 

That's Janine, Phillip, who he's speaking of who on Facebook is adventures in my trusty boots. Who's also an excellent nature photographer from Northern BC.  

Oh. And my brother. Yeah. Yeah. Um, but it's difficult to arrange schedules. Yeah, yeah, for sure. 

So, um, let's say that a new photographer somewhere in,  let's say between here and the coast, let's say mm-hmm. , prince Rupert, if they wanted to get started photographing the Northern Lights, what would you tell them?

Is kind of like a starter pack,

well, perhaps the most important piece would be a good tripod. Mm-hmm. , um, good flashlight, um, warm clothes. Yeah. Yep. If it's a good show, you're gonna be out for a long time. Yeah. So, keeping warm. , nothing will cut off your trip quicker than getting too chilled. Right? Yeah. Yeah. A thermos or something. Yep.

Um, bear spray just, just been lots of bears are on haggle. Get. This fall. 

 So you mentioned, obviously, um, hag  is a good place, but, uh, let's say if someone's in Smithers, where would you tell them?

Like, is like Kathlin a good place to go? Or like Seymour,  yeah. Yeah. I've been at, uh, lake Kathlin. I go out on a lake there and you could get some good shots of the mountains. I think, but on the other hand too, um, Having a good, interesting peace in a foreground.

Doc helps a photo too, right? Yeah. I'd like to include maybe a single tree in a foreground or mm-hmm.  bush bushes or something. Yeah. Um, gives you a bit of scale to photo and uh, it's something, um, Ansl Adams would all would often do.

Like how, how long would your exposures be? Lately, uh, I used to play around with real long, um, exposures. Mm-hmm. , but that you lose some of the details of Northern Lights. But, uh, if you got a good camera, I'd just leave it on automatic for as much as you could and right. Yeah. Yeah. If the, the lights are good, uh, just let let the camera take care of it.

Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Um, was there anything that I didn't ask that you think is important to, uh, to let people know 

well, it's, it's something that grows on you. Um, you take a few good shots and people like it and builds up, um, a real interest to try to duplicate that. 

It's an expensive op

The more you get into it, uh, the more money you end up spending. Yeah. It's a, I'll give you that Heads up . Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Walter. Okay, good.  

My name is Tom Burbee.  So where am I speaking to you, Tom?  I'm actually in Vancouver, uh, working remotely here. Uh, but normally I live in Terrace.

I know from Walter Joseph that you're a photographer at Amateur, , astronomer as well. Can you tell me a little bit about the, either of those parts of your life and also the mixture of. Yeah, for sure.  I'm, , I'm in technology.  I work with computers, but I've had an interest in science fiction,  from an early age, uh, especially space-based science fiction.

 And so as I, as I grew up, um, started getting more interested in our real world night sky rather than just the the fictional one.  I would always go out almost every summer and watch the Persian meteor shower in August.

Um, it's a nice convenient one cuz it's usually warm in, in terrace. . And you can lay outside under the stars for hours without being in minus 20. And then in. 2003 or so. I kind of started my journey down my photography, um, path that I'm on at the moment. And there was a very good connection between the night sky astronomy and photography.

Um, because what a camera can capture.  is, can be more than what you can see through a telescope or with the naked eye. . And then you can retain those memories, you can share them, you can, you know, um, publish them. There's all sorts of opportunities there. And so, um, with my interest in, in the night sky and photography, they just came together, uh, and, and led me to where I am.

 What's happening in the atmosphere when we can see the Northern Lights? The best of what I know.  So the sun has, you know, solar flares. This is the most common thing that people hear. What the, what it's actually called is a coronal, mass ejection or a C. And the C M E is an explosion on the surface of the sun.

Blows material into, , into space. , and if we're lucky enough, or, or I guess unlucky, depending on how big the the C M E is, cuz it can have disastrous effects for things on earth.  That material flies through space and when it interacts with the magnetic, magnetic sphere of the earth.  Material, those particles that the sun blew off,  get energized when they're interacting with the magnetic sphere.

And that's what generates the Northern Lights.  Different kinds of particles give us different colors. Mm-hmm.  and depending on a bunch of factors such as how much material, how fast it was moving, and. Is the term solar wind.  So when an explosion happens, just like an explosion happens on earth, there's a shockwave.

 Well, the, the shockwave from the, the C m E exploding on the sun sends that material through space and creates the solar wind, and then it impacts the earth and, and generates the light that we see as the. 

 How can you estimate when you could possibly see Aurora Borealis? Thanks to NASA and all the satellites that we have, there are systems,  satellites that are watching the sun for these CMEs and the the solar flares.

They take time to get here. Unlike the speed of light or radio frequency from a satellite communicating back to earth, which is much quicker. The the solar wind takes time for it to come from the sun to earth. That generally gives us anywhere from a few hours. I, I think somewhere in. You know, eight to 12.

Um, you can just go to a website and look at how things are trending.  Space weather is a really good one. Gives. All of the statistics of what, what might be coming now? Nothing. It's, it's like predicting the weather as well. Nothing is guaranteed. There's been times when there's been a prediction of a, a crazy solar storm that's gonna hit the earth and I've been out and absolutely nothing happens

Um, and that's just like, you know, you're expecting a sunny Saturday and it turns out to be rainy. Yeah. . Um, and so there's all sorts of websites. The Canadian government actually has 

Space weather,  dot And they have, Current predictions as well as some past history to try and build a trend because okay, like the weather, it's not, it's just gonna be sunny. If the clouds are moving away, then you can pretty much think that it's gonna become sunny. 

Mm-hmm. .  this past weekend actually, we had a really crazy solar storm.  There's all sorts of indexes and scales,  for the, the northwest. A, a naked eye visible. Aurora is somewhere in about a, a KP five or a KP six. Mm-hmm.  on this scale. And the solar storm that came on the weekend was a. Yeah, . It was apparently absolutely phenomenal.

My Instagram, my Facebook, all and friends in Hazleton were posting pictures standing out in their front yard. Looking at the aurora as bright as day.  And I'm in Vancouver and it was cloudy .  So I was very bummed out cause this, that would've been the, the biggest storm that I'd ever been a part of.

You look at kind of the way they, all the scientific readings are trending, so a little bit of learning involved in that. But then you've got lots of time to. Bundle up if you need to grab your gear, if you have gear, and go and find a spot that's dark and look to the northeast and hope that, uh, hope that you're in for a show.

Yeah. Uh, speaking of, you know, packing and, and gear,  , where are some of your favorite places that you're willing to share?

Yeah. Um, couple of the last few years, I've had crazy Aurora experiences in. Hmm. Which means you don't have to worry about emittance or the boots or the coats and, you know, the thermos full of hot chocolate or coffee.  You can essentially go out,  you know,  at any point with whatever you're comfortable, bring your flashlight so you can see where you're walking in the dark.

 But basically to get started, just need a tripod where you can set up your camera point in the direction where the, the lights are happening and just.

a one second exposure or a five second exposure with however fast your camera lens can, can go. Mm-hmm. , and you'll get something. Yeah. And, and that'll be the gateway drug into , into to doing more, uh, because it's, it's amazing. 

 Where we're located in the northwest of bc, the rural oval, which, um, is a, a.  designation or a, a feature of how the Aurora interacts with the magnetic field of the earth. Dips very far south in the center of the country.

So like Ontario, Winnipeg, or Manitoba? Saskatchewan. It, it'll go very far south, almost like to the US border as it comes west. It starts arcing, northward. . So for us in the northwest, looking to the northeast is generally where you will always see auroras when they're, they're out.  You won't see them in the west very much.

You won't see them in the south, but in the north to northeast to east area. That's where they'll come from. So if you're in Smithers, go northeast of. , look to the Northeast. Mm-hmm. , if you're in Terrace, Kiwana, wherever you might be, get out somewhere where there's a little bit less light pollution. Look to the northeast.

Could you tell me about  one or two of  your favorite moments when you were out,  shooting and  you caught something that just felt really magnificent and exciting? Yeah, for sure. Um, this past August, um, I actually got an, an alert, um, through one of my apps that there was auroras happening.

So,  my girlfriend and I drove up to Calum Lake and got to see, I think, , a KP five storm. So it was, we were able to see the aurora with our, our naked eye, and then taking pictures of it.  and I, I started creating a, a panorama, and while I was taking the panorama, the, the shape of a, a bird showed up an eagle or a raven.

Which was, which was very neat to see over the Kitum. Calum, , Kits and Calum Lake, due to the significance of, of the Raven and the eagle in First Nations culture.  So it was really neat to see that.  And then another thing also at Calum Lake, just again from timing and, and the, the low mountains and being able to see it is a phenomenon called, Which is an acronym for strong thermal emission Velocity Enhancement.

And it's not technically an Aurora, but it looks like an Aurora in the sky. It's, it's a light and  but it's generally characterized by a very distinct, strong. Pink or purple bar in the sky.  So instead of like an aurora ribbon where the sky is dancing and or there's greens, this is like a big pink straight line.

That just goes through the sky and sometimes accompanied by,  what's called the picket fence, Aurora, which is a bunch of green bars that are lined up like a picket fence. Um, and Steve is far more rare than regular Aurora.  Again, not caused by the same things, but often shows.  in and around the time that there's a C M E happening and scientists are still learning about Steve.

Um, they don't know exactly what causes it yet. Um, but it's a really neat thing to see in the night sky. 

 So can you tell me a little bit about the Terrace Astronomy Club?

 I joined it because I wanted to connect with, , people that were also interested in the night sky,  as you would do with most Facebook groups, I assume.

Um, so yeah, the, the Terrace Astronomy Facebook page, um, I've been going there to share the photos that I've taken to find out if anybody else is going out.  Amazingly, I've been able to get pictures of  the moons around Jupiter. Cool. Um, and so, and it's just a camera when you're looking through a big, high, high powered telescope with a, a focal reducer on it and all this fancy stuff,  you get really close up view of, of planets or, or nebulas or things like that.

 Was there anything that I didn't ask about that you wanted to share? Well, one, one interesting thing is that Aurora is not a phenomenon isolated to the earth. Mars has Aurora,  Jupiter has Aurora,  and even, 

venus even has Aurora,  without a magnetic. And it's the way that, again, just the way that the particles interact with the atmospheres, but  I think it was the Juno space probe, that went around. Jupiter captured some absolutely stunning images of Aurora,  on the North Pole, north end, south Pole, I think of Jupyter.

So if you have an opportunity, go to Google. Search Aurora on Jupiter and you'll see some really amazing photos. So it's, it's, it's the particles from the sun interacting with the planetary body. Preferably, or ideally with a magnetic field for that to interact with.

And it's the particles producing light and that's not a unique thing to earth.  It's just the only planet we get to experience it on firsthand at the moment. 

 One thing else your listeners,  could be aware of is that the sun, , cycles on an 11 year cycle of activity.  So when it's low activity, it's called the solar minimum, and when it's more active, it's called the solar maximum. And luckily, . Right now we're coming into the 11 year solar maximum cycle, which means the sun will be more active, which will hopefully mean that we will see Aurora more frequently and potentially more vibrantly due to bigger storms,  for the next two to four years while we're in this solar maximum cycle.

So that's very exciting. That is exciting. Cuz auroras aren't something that happened in the winter. Yeah. Uh, they actually can happen in the middle of the day because it's all about when the particles from the C m E hit the Earth.

It's just you have a better chance of seeing them at night because it's dark.  So yeah, in the summertime,  some of my best experiences in northwest BC have been in August. , April. Mm-hmm.  not in the dead of winter. Yeah. Um, it was really nice being out on the beach in August, taking pictures of the aurora just in a hoodie and, and, uh, pants and not having to wear my snowsuit to stay warm.

And if people wanna follow you on Facebook to check out your photography, where should they go?

Facebook or Instagram? You can find me at Tom Burbee Photography. 

 Thanks so much for speaking with me, Tom. Yeah, you're welcome. 


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