My Love Affair with S.T.E.V.E.

#2276 S.T.E.V.E over Cold Lake

I am having an affair of the heart. Not going to lie, this new passion that has come into my life is unlike anything I’ve known before. Turns out, he has been there all along, but from the moment I first detected his presence, I found I could not look away. He’s strong, hot, has emissions (blush), and he’s fast…in short, nothing less than an enhanced phenomena. Okay, I see where your mind went there…let me explain.

I chase the phenomenal S.T.E.V.E. (Strong, thermal, emission, velocity, enhancement). I first heard about Steve in a news article a couple of years ago. I thought perhaps I had captured a photo and I reached out to the Canadian Space Agency who put me in touch with the Alberta Aurora Chasers facebook group. This group of very supportive individuals confirmed that I had not, in fact, captured a photo of Steve. I was now on a mission!

Steve is a truly Albertan story (however, he can be viewed across the globe). Although he is not a new phenomena (once referred to as a proton arc), he has recently been recognized as a separate entity from the Aurora Borealis altogether. Steve is recognized as a thin purple, often twisty spire with (sometimes) green pickets coming off to one side. Some photographers from the AAC noted that he was unlike the other aurora. For one thing he stood in one place for periods of time, almost unmoving (to be clear, he does move). If Lady Aurora is said to dance, Steve is the shy wallflower that never learned the right steps and simply sways awkwardly in time to the music. When asked what this “new” phenomena should be named, one of the chasers, Chris Ratzlaff, came up with “Steve” after the scene in the children’s animated feature “Over the Hedge” where the woodland critters come up against something they’ve never seen before. Like most of humanity…giving a name to our fears often calms us and, what we call a hedge, the critters in the movie called Steve.

After coordinating data with Nasa and the Canadian Space Agency, it was confirmed that Steve was unlike anything noted before. He showed up in lower latitudes than the typical aurora, lasted 20 mins or more (I’ve watched for up to an hour), seems to be seasonal, and aligns from East to West. Because of this alignment, he can often be missed while cameras are firmly focused on the north where the Lady usually sets her stage. He doesn’t come to every dance but can silently emerge and be watching over your shoulder as you follow the Lady.

I will never forget my first encounter in 2018. I often shared my love of the night sky with my students and had told them about Steve and my mission to capture him in a photo. It was only a week later in early July that I was out taking pics with my camera facing to the north. The Lady Aurora was resting and regaining strength, and I stepped away from the camera and scanned the heavens with my eyes. As I zeroed in on the milky way, I realized there was a faint, thin, purple/pink band dissecting it directly over my head and crossing the entire sky like a mono-coloured rainbow. Thinking it might be the Lady having gained strength, I swivelled my camera around to the east to see if the band continued to the horizon. He was very faint that night but happily the camera always catches more than the eye can see. I did a few seconds exposure and looked at my display window to behold the twisting spire with faint green pickets that was his trademark. I had finally met and captured Steve! I stood in the middle of the dark, desolate, country lane and did an honest to goodness happy dance. Not the metaphysical kind you do in your mind… I mean the full on arms waving, legs dancing, fists punching the sky happy dance. I’m not sure how long he had been behind me, but his presence didn’t last long. I didn’t manage to get the greatest pic…but it was there and I saw him. I would have to wait two full months to share with my students. I must have really made an impression because “did you meet Steve?” was the first question asked by many of the kids when I saw them for the first time in September. And I was happily armed with photos…

I have met him only a few times since then. It may be that he doesn’t like hanging around this far north. At the end of August he appeared almost horizontal over Cold Lake, green pickets glowing against the purple/pink spire. The lady had danced hard the night before and her show this night was lack lustre but Steve was out loud and proud. Not even a massive meteoritic fireball took away from his splendour that night. He started faint, grew stronger, and hovered silently.  Less than a week later he was back and more amazing than ever. I noticed him to the Northwest which was unusual, or so I thought. In fact there was a telltale twisty purple arc that morphed into a fine purple line across the sky, transecting the Milky Way and turning into another twisty purple spire towards the Southeast. Utter and complete awe! There was Steve to the left and to the right of me…I didn’t know where to point the camera. Luckily he sticks around in generally the same position for a while so it is fairly easy to get several shots and angles in without a lot of frustration (unlike the Lady Aurora who often challenges the camera like a toddler with ADHD who has run out of Ritalin).

If Steve has your interest I highly encourage you to check out the documentary “Chasing Steve” on Vimeo. It costs a few cents but well worth the coin. It is a beautiful capture of the life of an aurora chaser and how Steve came to be the Phenomenal Steve. 

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