Remembering That We Are Tiny

There are a plethora of events to reflect upon as 2008 comes to a close: the historical election of the U.S.'s first multiracial president, the economic meltdown, the war in Iraq, tensions with Iran, and terrorist attacks in Mumbai, among many others. In the coming months and years we will continue to struggle with questions of gay rights, diversity in government, overseas tensions, access to shipping routes in the Northwest Passage, and environmental policy to name a few. Thoughtful analysis and intense debate through mediums such as blogs will play a vital role in shaping our national and global future.

But today I want to take a moment to reflect on an aspect of life that we in the U.S. rarely seem to notice. I am currently living in Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories in Canada. These days the sun is barely rising above the horizon. For about five hours we are bathed in twilight before being plunged back into darkness. Six months from now that same elusive sun will never slide below the horizon. I have become accustomed to -40° C weather and consider anything above -20° C to be balmy. The coldest days are the brightest, with no clouds to trap what little heat we do get from the sunlight. The sky is huge in the arctic, and we are beholden to it.

As I've slowly adjusted to life north of the 60° (latitude) line, I've begun to learn more about our sky. Being close to the pole and far from the equator has given me a visceral sense of the shape of the planet. The long nights have visually exposed me to the machinations of the universe. I feel very small. And somehow, in a time of such strife for the human race, our insignificance is comforting to me. I wanted to share a few of my discoveries with the hope that, even though I can only send tiny pictures and explanations, other people can share in this sense of awe for what is possible in the universe.


The Aurora is also known as the Northern Lights and under the right conditions can be seen as far south as the northern part of the United States. In November 2001 the aurora actually stretched all the way down to Mexico. However, the ideal location for aurora viewing is a donut shaped oval around the magnetic pole (both north and south), which includes Alaska and a wide swath of middle to northern Canada on the North American continent.

"The aurora is understood to be caused by the interaction of high energy particles (usually electrons) with neutral atoms in the earth's upper atmosphere. These high energy particles can ‘excite’ (by collisions) valence electrons that are bound to the neutral atom. The ‘excited’electron can then ‘de-excite’ and return back to its initial, lower energy state, but in the process it releases a photon (a light particle). The combined effect of many photons being released from many atoms results in the aurora display that you see."

Left photograph taken by Yuichi Takasaka in Yellowknife, Canada on September 3, 2008. Right photograph by Thomas Hagen in Tromsø, Norway on October 20, 2008.

Nacreous Clouds

Until I moved to the arctic I had never heard of these. The clouds form in the stratosphere, 9 to 16 miles above earth. Their color is created when sunlight hits tiny ice crystals inside the clouds. Temperatures around -85° C are needed for the clouds to form. Although nacreous clouds are usually rare, earlier this year they formed above Scandinavian countries for a solid week. Today was the second time in the past week that they've been spotted in the Scandinavian region.

Left photograph by Ivar Marthinusen. Taken on December 17, 2008 in Trondheim, Norway. Right photograph by Sauli Koski in Kittila, Finland on December 19, 2008.

Perigee Moon

This final one is a bit closer to most Americans' homes. The last full moon of 2008 was 14% wider and 30% brighter than other full moons this year. The moon's path around the earth is elliptical. The perigee is the point along the ellipsis that is closest to earth, some 50,000 km nearer than its far point, the apogee. If you missed the December full moon, don't worry. The next perigee moon will rise on January 10, 2009 and will be the biggest full moon of the year.

Photographs by Greek amateur astronomer Anthony Ayiomamitis in 2004.

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