Recording the sound of the aurora borealis

Last night, I trekked out to Elk Island National Park, a forty-five minute drive east of Edmonton, one of the few designated ‘dark sky’ locations close to my home.

After a small adventure — missing the turn and on the backup, sliding into a ditch and getting stuck — I found out there is still such a thing as the Good Samaritan. Several people stopped; one with a tow-rope. A pull, a yank, and clunk into reverse gear, I popped out onto the main highway without further excitement.

Slowly making my way along the park road, I waited for the big show of the anticipated (and much publicized) aurora borealis after the sun burped and spit out a big blast of particles directed toward the earth (the Northern Lights are animated by the solar wind cresting over the tops of the world’s poles).

The night sky opened up after a cloudy start. Stars poked out, bright and shiny; a moon three-quarters full, casting wonderful shadows. And the aurora? Well, ummm…. nothing happened.

I wasn’t all that disappointed; it was pleasant to be joined by a pile of other people, late, late on a Thursday, cameras in tow waiting for the same thing. My intention was a wee bit different, I had my VLF (very low frequency) antennae hoping to record the aurora ‘radio frequency’ — the otherwise inaudible soundtrack that dances in time with the night sky. It was fairly quiet — some snap, crackle and pop (like you hear in this recording).  I had been hoping to capture something more akin to these whistles and chirps.

After I drove away from the crowd — far away from the digital cameras and buzzzz of electronic devices, mobiles phones, and cars idling — it was drop dead silent. And in the lead up to the wee hours, I heard an owl hoot in the bush. Once, twice, several times.

Then silence.

I quietly thanked whoever was listening for the pleasure of that moment in the cold night air.

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