Up north

When I was studying for my private pilot’s license examination, I learned about magnetic variation. The magnetic north pole - the direction the north end of a magnetic needle points - and the true north pole - the direction along a meridian towards the geographical north pole - are not the same. The angle on the horizontal plane between those two directions is called magnetic variation. If you are navigating by a magnetic compass, you need to know that angle and correct your direction by the number of degrees in that angle. Two factors make that angle difficult to compute. The first is that the size of the angle depends on your location east or west. There is always some place on the globe where that angle is zero. The second factor is that the magnetic pole moves. The line of zero declination, called the agonic, is moving westward at about 12 miles per year.

I didn’t need to know all of the details in order to obtain my pilot’s license and to navigate accurately when I was flying. The angles were computed and printed on the navigation charts that we used and were required to carry with us in the airplane at all times. These charts were dated and obtaining current charts was the responsibility of the pilot. These days the charts are in electronic databases and updated by Internet connections. Furthermore, contemporary pilots rely on GPS navigation over compass navigation. Their situational awareness is much more accurate than ours was 50 years ago.

Magnetic variation, however, is playing a role in my life these days. I’ve moved north. Our home here on Birch Bay, Washington is very close to the 49th parallel. That is a full 5 degrees farther north than Rapid City, where we lived for the previous 25 years. It is easy to tell the difference when the night sky is clear. The north star and the location of the two dippers are higher in the sky than they were when I viewed them in Rapid City. Knowing that I am that much farther north has brought me outside in the evening on occasion looking for a view of the northern lights. The lights, also known as the aurora borealis, are beautiful, dancing waves of light that can be seen in the night sky in northern locations. Their intensity changes with variations in the geomagnetic activity. Solar activity affects the earth’s geomagnetic field. I was looking at the sky last night because a solar storm has increased the intensity of the aurora.

Part of the challenge of seeing the lights in our location is that we live in a tight neighborhood, which means that there are houses blocking my view of the northern horizon. Another part of the challenge is that there is moderate light pollution from Vancouver, British Columbia to our north. This light pollution is intensified in the winter, when the snow on the surrounding mountains reflects that light resulting in a general glow on the horizon.

The real problem with viewing the northern lights from our home, however, has to do with magnetic variation. While I have moved farther north on the globe, I have not moved closer to the magnetic north pole. In fact, our old home of Rapid City, SD is closer to the magnetic north pole than we are here in Birch Bay. After all, I only moved north 5 degrees. It’s a long way to Alaska from here.

And then there are the clouds.

Seeing the night sky is dependent upon being able to see the sky. If there are too many clouds in the sky, the range of visibility is limited. And we have plenty of clouds most of the time around here. Although a solid overcast is less common, clouds anywhere in the night sky limit the visibility. The clouds also reflect light from the earth back down, making it more challenging to see the stars and other phenomena of the night sky.

I have not yet observed the northern lights from my new home here in “almost Canada.” Last night was supposed to offer the opportunity. I suppose that if I was a really dedicated observer, I might have gotten in my car and driven out into the countryside a bit farther from the lights to a place where at least I could observe the horizon. I wouldn’t have to go too far. Our son’s farm offers a clear view to the North. When evening comes, however, I am generally tired enough to be content to stay home and leave the car in the garage. Our bedroom on the second floor of our home offers a bit better view to the north than our back deck, so I peer out the window and hope to see a bit of the dancing lights, but so far I’ve had no such luck.

There will be other solar flares and other geomagnetic storms. And, the magnetic north pole is moving. Life on this tilted planet is in perpetual transition. Enough patience will reward me with another view of the aurora. Patience, however, is not my best quality. Although I am refining skills as I age and I suspect I am a bit more patient than I was as a young adult, I keep anticipating a display that would send me for my camera. So far, all is quiet in the limited range of my vision from my north window.

I have observed, however, that the nights are getting shorter. The solstice has passed and the days are getting longer. I still find myself wearing a headlamp to cook dinner outdoors, but another month will eliminate that need. The mild weather near the ocean means that February heralds the coming of spring. Despite the predictions of Punxsutawney Phil, we know that we’ll be pruning our bushes and mowing our lawn within a couple of weeks around here. That is a big change from our years in South Dakota where I could pretty much ignore yard work, except for shoveling snow, well into late March or early April.

I’ll keep looking up and checking the sky. One of the nights, I might just get a glimpse of the lights.

Made in RapidWeaver