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Behold 'Steve' -- Unique aurora phenomenon captured amid local Northern Lights display

A photo of "Steve" as seen from Darrington, Wash. on Sept. 27, 2017 (Photo: JB Hawkins Photography)

SEATTLE -- Getting to see a brilliant display of the Northern Lights is pretty rare around Washington, but Tuesday night's display brought something even less common: A Steve sighting.

No, not the name of the photographers trying to capture the event (although I'm sure there were a few) but it's what citizen researchers have named a type of aurora streak that seems to dance in place as a vertical tube, rather than shimmering lights that sway across the skies.

"Steve" was coined by Chris Ratzlaff, a photographer and the administrator for "The Alberta Aurora Chasers" Facebook group. He and the site's members had noticed a long, tubular purplish part of the aurora. They called it "proton arc" but it attracted the attention of aurora researcher Prof. Eric Donovan with the University of Calgary. He saw their photos but knew proton arcs aren't visible so it had to be something else.

Ratzlaff told CBC-TV he came up with the name "Steve" after watching the movie "Over the Hedge" in which animals are scared of an unknown something on the other side of a hedge, and decide to call it Steve. The name has stuck. (Guess it's a good idea he wasn't watching Shrek.)

Donovan was able to go back and match the chasers' photos of Steve to when a satellite from the European Space Agency's "swarm" project flew through that spot and were able to detail changes in the electric fields.

“The temperature 300 km (186 miles) above Earth’s surface jumped by 3000°C and the data revealed a 25 km-wide ribbon of gas flowing westwards at about 6 km/s compared to a speed of about 10 m/s either side of the ribbon," Donovan told the ESA. “It turns out that Steve is actually remarkably common, but we hadn’t noticed it before. It’s thanks to ground-based observations, satellites, today’s explosion of access to data and an army of citizen scientists joining forces to document it."

If you watch carefully on some of the videos from last night, you can pick it up on some of the time lapses as well!


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