How Alberta’s amateur skywatchers found a new kind of aurora borealis

Travel Alberta

Apr 26, 2018 - 3 minute read

Late at night on evenings when aurora borealis is lighting up the night skies over Alberta, a blurry purple-pink streak sometimes runs across the sky from east to west. To Alberta’s passionate crew of aurora watchers – a dedicated group of amateur skygazers, photographers and adventurers – it looked a bit like the northern lights, but not quite. 

“I saw this pink streak through the sky,” Chris Ratzlaff, one of those amateurs, told Global News. “It was very thin and narrow. My first thought was that it was an airplane.”

Nobody knew what it was, so they came up with a name. Inspired by a scene from the animated film Over the Hedge, they called it Steve. Yep, Steve.

Now, Steve is a bonafide scientific phenomenon after a group of scientists, working with those Albertans, identified the streak of light as something different than aurora, something related to the Earth’s magnetic field that one scientist said “may be an extraordinary puzzle piece.” The scientists even accommodated that nickname into a sciency acronym describing the phenomenon: Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement (STEVE). 

News of the scientific finding was published in the journal Science Advances, and the world took notice. Publications from all over the world, including National GeographicNASA and Wired wrote about how a group of amateurs in Alberta had shaken up the word of science.

Steve has been seen all over the world, but hadn’t previously been studied scientifically or identified as unique. Many skywatchers had assumed it was part of the famous aurora borealis, or mistakenly called it proton arcs. But, as National Geographic pointed out, Steve “is narrower and with clearer structure to it.”

It was a proud moment for those Albertans, who had already done their part to draw attention to the magnificent night skies in Alberta thanks to the stunning photography they regularly share on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. One of them, Paul Zizka, Insta-famous for marrying the grandeur of Banff National Park with the grandeur of the Milky Way, is even the subject of a new documentary film.

While the scientists go about their work deepening their understanding of Steve, they may again call on citizen scientists in Alberta, and around the world, to help better triangulate Steve and measure its altitude.

Alberta’s aurora chasers, meanwhile, are already back doing their thing, capturing the beauty of nature and inspiring people from all over the world to visit see Alberta’s magical dark skies.

Paul Zizka

Dark Sky Preserves

Did you know that Alberta has six Dark Sky Preserves? It’s a designation that limits the amount of light pollution released into the night skies to better enable skywatching and stargazing. In other words: These are the best places to see the stars, the northern lights, and Steve. Those preserves include: 

Waterton Lakes National Park

Jasper National Park

Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park

Elk Island National Park / Beaver Hills Dark Sky Preserve 

Lakeland Provincial Park 

Wood Buffalo National Park

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