Story of dune auroras

28.10.2021

The Story Of "The Dunes"

"we might have a now aurora form here" -Pirjo, photo selection team 7.10.2018

What new aurora form? What photo selection team? you might ask. Let me introduce you to the story of "The Dunes", let's go!

It was 7th of October 2015 when three dark figures were standing in the twilight, gazing towards the sky. Suddenly aurora arc appeared in the sky, this is exactly what we have been waiting for! "Now it begins", people shouted!

And so began one of the most amazing northern lights display that I have ever witnessed and unforgettable journey to the fascinating world of aurora borealis. During this journey I became a citizen scientist and a co-author of a scientific paper about newly discovered aurora form - "The Dunes".

First appearance of "The Dunes"

Aurora arc became stronger and brighter in the sky, and it was drifting towards the zenith. It looked peculiar as the lower part of it was stretching in a strange way. At the same time some dark bands appeared in the northwestern part of the arc. I was thinking to myself, "clouds, not again!". But then I kept observing the dark bands, they seemed to follow the movement and shape of the stretched aurora arc. "What is this?", I was thinking to myself. At the same time there were similar dark band also in northeast, but I'm sure they were clouds. Those dark cloud bands were interfering with the dark bands in the aurora arc. I messaged with the other observers, and all of them were observing the same phenomenon, "dark bands in aurora arc". And unfortunately also some dark cloud bands.

During the display I wasn't analyzing those bands too much, I just kept on observing and photographing. We were talking much about that aurora display in The Skywarden the next day. The next day also my parents were visiting at me. As fanatic aurora enthusiast as they are, they wanted to see my photos from last night. I was showing photos of that banded aurora arc, my father said that "they look like dunes in Yyteri beach". I thought that indeed, they look like sand dunes in the beach! Oh father, I wish you could have known that an entirely new aurora form was named being inspired by you! My father also asked, if the dark bands were clouds, they had been watching the same display in Harjavalta that night. I had to answer that "I don't know, we may find out one day if someone want's to study these more in-depth". At that moment, I couldn't have ever been able to imagine what kind of a journey this would become!

"The Dunes" became a hot topic

After that night of auroras, there was an active discussion going on in The Skywarden about this peculiar band-phenomena that people observed with the auroras that night. But soon people forgot the phenomena as we descended into dark, cloudy and depressing November, only to pop-up again three years later. Years from 2015 to 2018 were a real roller coaster to me, it was a mix of joy and sorrow, joy being a book project called "Revontulibongarin opas" (Skywatchers guide to northern lights", later referred to as "The Book") and sorrow being the fact that my mom and dad both passed away. The team was observing "The Dunes" couple of times after the first appearance, but no one had special interest to study it more thoroughly. But then it all changed! I have learned, that everything is connected and things don't just happen randomly, as I have had to painfully learn so many times! How the book project and the photo selection team are connected to "The Dunes"? Let's go to year 2018 and I'll explain!

Operation "The Book project"

People were asking a lot of questions in the "Revontulikyttääjät" (Finnish Aurora Watchers) -facebook group, that inspired the founding member of the group Teemu Saramäki to request a professional geophysics researcher Minna Palmrooth from University of Helsinki to join the group. We soon noticed, that there were a lot of Frequently Asked Questions, and so it was clear that they needed to be answered. And the answer was a book, where all those frequently asked questions would be answered. The end result of this project would be the book "Revontulikyttääjän opas", from now on referred to as "The Book".

The initiation of the book project

Writers of "The Book" were Minna Palmrooth (professor of theoretical geophysics in University of Helsinki), Jouni Jussila (writer and ex-aurora scientist of University of Oulu) and Markus Hotakainen (science journalist and writer). Also a group of citizen scientists were invited to the book project, including me, Karri Pasanen, Matti Helin, Emma Bruus, Minna Glad and Teemu Saramäki. Photos to "The Book" were selected from the Revontulikyttääjät -Facebook group. We were looking for representative photos of all kinds of aurora forms from our hard drives. Later this group became the group discovering "The Dunes". I started browsing my photos and sending them t o further analysis. I asked about Jouni Jussila how to categorize photos of those "to-be-dunes", and he simply asked to categorize them as "Minna's XX". His reply made me smile, maybe science doesn't have to be always so serious business!

Chosen photos

We had a photo selection meeting in Helsinki, we traveled there together with Matti Helin. During the trip we were of course talking about "The Dunes". As we were selecting the photos, we were wondering those dark bands, but as the deadline was tight, we skipped those at the moment. Suddenly the team was welded together, and we became good friends. We were talking about auroras and also about many other things in life. We shared joys and sorrows. Life went on, and we were looking for more photos about "The Dunes" and thinking about theories about them.

Are there any coincidences?

The publication event of "The Book" was organized in 4th of October 2018 in Tiedekulma, Helsinki. Media was also interested in the event, and there were many television and radio interviews. Of course also our group was cheerful about the event, and active chatting was going on in the Facebook group. Then something mysterious happened, "The Dunes" appeared again in the sky of Laitila, only couple of days after the publication event! During that epic night electrically charged particles from the Sun hit the Earth's atmosphere, and they caused one of the best aurora displays that I had seen in long time! Simultaneously a chain of event was triggered in the Facebook Messenger -group of the photo selection team. To broadcast the authentic atmosphere, here are some direct quotes from the discussion:

MH=Matti Helin MP=Minna Palmroth JJ= Jouni Jussila MG=Minna Glad PK=Pirjo Koski TS= Teemu Saramäki KP= Karri Pasanen

It is 7th of Obctober 2018, beautiful autumn day. Of course we are talking about the coming night in the Messenger group of the selection team. (That day was also very active in the Revontulikyttääjät group, more than 200 messages were written hours before dark! You could easily feel the electrified atmosphere!

MH: I guess we know what we are about to do tonight (reference to solar wind numbers)

JJ: I guess we all have the same plan!

TS: Today would be a good day to start the skywatching!

MH: Three years ago was a good night

MH: That was exactly the night when those waves or dark bands were seen

JJ: By the way, we haven't yet solved the mystery of those bands

PK: Oh, this is that thing, I didn't have wide field lens back then, I feel sad about that, I was about to ask about those bands, were the low clouds? Or then we could have a new aurora form here!

At the moment I felt myself a fool, perhaps that was just caused by the anxious anticipation of the evening! Or was it?

I packed my camera equipment and headed to Lausti village couple of kilometers away. When I was driving, my phone went crazy as people were sending messages in the Messenger group. I finally arrived at my observing site and parked my car. I ran like Lasse Viren, northern lights appeared in the sky and my phone was singing Hosanna, someone really had something important to say! I grabbed my phone and I noticed that people in the selection group had gone totally mad

MH: @Karri Pasanen told that aurora arc is already visible

KP: yes

At this moment I stopped for a while and looked to the sky, and immediately noticed a pale red band that was visible in the sky crossing the Milky way. Oh my god, it is the SAR-arc! I immediately texted to the group!

In the messenger group:

PK: sar!!!

JJ: Congratulations!

At the same time I texted with Matti Helin in WhatsApp, discussions with him were hilarious:

PK: at 20.37, those waves again, exactly the waves we talked about

MH: put your camera on continuous shooting mode!

PK: I'm already shooting!

At 22.01 I had written: "Huh now I can finally breathe" and even without any typos. I was shooting with continuous mode all the time, luckily so!

Meanwhile in the group:

MH: unbelievable, the waves are there again!

MG: I can see the waves also here in the western sky of Kuopio -and SAR -arc too, amazing!

JJ: :O

MH: @Minna Palmroth!

PK: "The Dunes" here, in the west! It can't be true!

MH: shoot with continuous mode!

"The Dunes" have finally made a comeback. From that night started a most amazing project, that I ever have had an honor to participate. In the night I tried to take photos like a maniac, and trying to compose nice photos, but it was challenging because there was so much happening everywhere you looked! During that night I had wandered 5 km off my car without even realizing it, that's how crazy the night was! The next day I started browsing the material I had captured and the chat was very active in the Messenger. We also found couple promising Dune aurora candidates in the Skywarden: 24th of October 2017 and 13th of October 2017.

Flood of observations

At the moment we had already a flood of observations, and Minna Palmroth decided to take a break and analyze the photo material. Emma Bruus made an excel sheet for saving the observations. Minna Palmroth invited research doctor Maxime Grandin to join the group. His role was to analyze the data from "The Dune" observations. In the analysis we used tomography -data by Johannes Norberg and magnetometry data by Ari Viljanen. Maxime was developing a method for calculating the elevation of "The Dunes". Things were going on quickly and it was as if I was in an action movie! In the heat of the process, we heard that also another group were researching a new aurora form! We were waiting anxiously. What new aurora form? "The Dunes" or something else? That research group was using data from Hankasalmi observatory, and we heard that the western sky where "The Dunes" had been seen, was covered by clouds in Hankasalmi. Later we heard that they were researching some other aurora forms, not "The Dunes". Huh, that was a relief! Now I could breath again! The discussion was still very active in the Messenger group:

MH: I'm sure it is useful to have real time data from field and from the sensors?

MP: yes it is very critical!

MH: we got to do a revision in "The Book"

MP: it would be cool to make a paper out of this! Immediately after citizen science hype!

Exactly! After this discussion went on in the chat, and we received many photos and observations of "The Dunes". And we found another new Dune night. Next we got Dune observations from Estonia and Sweden. But then we discovered something even more important, simultaneous photos from different locations shoot to the same direction! Then we started searching more, could we be able to find photos taken exactly at same minute? Photos like that would be very important, because defining the altitude of "The Dunes" is critical. And again the chat went on:

MP: hello, after trial and error I measured the elevation of "The Dunes" We have a challenge here, we should be able to recognize same feature of the auroras from two different photos at the same minute, and then measure it's distance from a fixed location. I now learned how to measure between two fixed locations, and I'm quite sure that I get right results when I calculate between two exactly fixed locations, Pirjo, do you have a photo that is taken exactly at the same moment that one taken in Ruovesi by Rami Valonen?

...at the moment I'm leaning towards my computer...

MG: in my photos I can see that same M-shaped form that is visible also in the photos taken in Ruovesi. Similar rays could be at 20.35. I hope that the photographer who took those photos tells me that they have taken at the same moment than my photos.

...at this moment I'm searching photos from my computer like crazy...

PK: I'm looking for photos of "The Dunes" from my computer. I have been watching the SAR -arc since 20.37. After that I have been taking photos towards northeast. At 20.40. it looks like the photographer has finally understood to turn her camera westwards. Starting from that moment, I have material for two minutes. At 20.42 I had moved my camera and shot northwards (Why?) From 20.44 I found one Dune photo until 20.46 I was again shooting the SAR -arc in the south. At 20.50 I have a series of 7 photos, where the Dunes are disappearing. Hopefully you understood something! Well, the group had learned my "Pike-Finnish" well until now.

MG: that's good! Your photos are nicely filling holes in the story, and now if we only had a pair of photos at exactly same moment.

MP: damn, Pirjo and Minna don't have photos at the exactly same moment. @Matti, did you find out when the photo was taken in Ruovesi?

MH: Hi, aurora photo was taken at 20.40 and Milky way photo at 21.40. I had luckily taken a photo of the auroras with my phone at the same time, and I can see the time there.

MP: If Pirjo has taken her photo at 20.40, it means we have a match! We can see recognizable features in both photos. What is the exposure time? It is a kind of time resolution.

I was browsing my shooting times, 20.37...no, 20.40.59! exposure time, it's a match! I can't believe it!

PK: I have a matching image with the one taken in Ruovesi, same time, same direction. I have three photos taken at 20.40. I had been shooting with continuous mode.

MH: so now if we compare these two photos, Pirjo's photo at 20.40.59 and the photo taken in Ruovesi by Rami Valonen at the same time, we can see three bends in the arc counting from the west, and at the second bend both photographers have visible pillars in their photos and some Dune structures south from them. Do you see the same? And do you think that "The Dunes" appear as if they are a bit higher that the arc?

MH: is that ray the same detail in both photos?

PK: Matti, I think they matching

MP: It could be, it is due east from the pillars in both photos. We were drawing red marks in the photos.

MH: so from the area marked red next below, shorter, the Dune structure is the same?

PK: at least it looks the same to me

MP: in both photos it is the 7th wave from west?

MH: there is a star at the same Dune -structure

MP: damn Matti, that's well done!

MH: please check now, with Stellarium, the star in Laitila with the coordinates of Laitila and the star of Ruovesi with the coordinates of Ruovesi. And the star in Ruovesi is Arcturus.

MH: did I check correctly, in Laitila the elevation of the wave is about 17 degrees and in Ruovesi about 7?

MG: did you have "The Dunes" in east or did you see something also in the west?

PK: it looks like that the events in east and west have been at the same time. Like the waves in the edge of the arc.

KP: I got to say, that the timing was best possible with The Book, so much media coverage and now this night!

MP: many had fool's luck!

MG: my poor camera couldn't take better photos of "The Dunes", but from this photo you can see how they are settled in the sky

MH: that's a good one!

MG: this photo was taken at 20.34 and the waves were visible until 20.57.

JJ: I seen the same waves also here in the north!

At this moment I realized that I had taken 5/7 of all Dune -photos in Finland. Then I started processing my photos. I processed and named all of them individually. In total I had 2500 photos, so it was quite a job! Meanwhile Matti Helin was looking for more old and new Dune photos from the internet. When I had finished processing my photos, I helped Matti with the search. During many nights I went on until 2 am. The work was going on well, everyone had their special tasks delegated and we had a great spirit together! We also found new photos of the Dunes, and Emma created an archive for storing the material. It helped us to be well coordinated with the material. And this is good, because eventually Matti was able to find lot's of material! From then, the work went on well until the exciting publication day. In the beginning it looked like I wasn't able to find anything to be archived about "The Dunes". After having searched for a while, I finally found some old photos, where I could clearly see "The Dunes". I recorded this in the excel -sheet made by Emma. Then I was already in flow mood looking for observations, and I was able to find more quickly. Then Matti was able to find an interesting match:

MH: so, Scotland, 20.1.2016, same night, when "The Dunes" were observed in Kaarina

PK: those are so obvious Dunes!

MP: well done @Matti!

PK: I just remembered, that there was a similar night at 4th of November 2018

MP: well done, Pike! This is a good event for comparison, they really look the same

and so we went on, until "The Dunes" were well documented and written, ready to be sent for publication.

To publish it or not?

It wasn't totally obvious for me to publish the paper. Eventually all of us agreed that Agu Advances would be best publication where we could publish our paper. But we had forgotten one thing, the phenomenon didn't have a name. We were talking about name suggestions in the group. Finally Minna Glad mentioned, that I had been talking about "Dunes" earlier. Matti Helin said that I had been talking about "Dunes" already in 2015, when I my dad invented that name. I couldn't believe my ears when all agreed, that "Dunes" would be a good name for the phenomena!

It was unbelievable, that I had a chance to name a new aurora form after my father, it took a while for me to really comprehend it! Meanwhile, we were working on the paper diligently. We were proofreading it, many times. Then finally it was ready to be sent to the publication. And as Emma Bruus said "is was time to lean comfortably backwards, and go with the flow". Then we were waiting anxiously, would they accept our paper? Is it really a new aurora form? Is our statement too much? Has all the hard work been for nothing?

...We are the champions

Time went on, and the paper was still pending for publishing. Anticipation became part of our daily lives. I was shooting the Milky Way after a long cloudy period, when my phone beeped. In the beginning only once, but soon came second, third and fourth time. Someone really had something important for me! I checked my phone, and noticed that there was a flood of messages! I was browsing the messages anxiously.

Our paper was accepted! It is time for "The Dunes" to conquer the world! I was speechless. I drove home and celebrated with a glass of whiskey while listening to "We are champions" by Queen! Soon I joined the celebration with the others in our group.

Publishing day was arriving

We had to keep the secret for 1,5 years. I had to come up with some kind of answers to the questions of my hobby colleagues and to do the background work in the group. I was watching the site of Wiley anxiously to see, if the status of our paper had changed. I was expecting to see "ready to publish" -message on the site. While waiting for that to happen, our team was searching for more Dune -photos. We were not sure, if we could make it all ready for the due date. But then they changed the publishing date to 29th of January 2020, which helped us a lot.

A final twist in the plot

...Agu decided to publish the paper before planned date. Maxime sent us a message, and told us, that it is already visible within the published articles. We were almost panicking, what now? We hoped that no one would find the article anyway.

Let's rock 'n' roll!

I woke up before my alarm went off. It was not expected as I had slept only for 4,5 hours. I was preparing my morning coffee and I was hysterically doing google search for "The Dunes". I was happy to not find anything. I reported this to the group, and all of us were relieved. And then soon news about a new aurora form was published in the site of Agu. Soon also University of Helsinki published the news. "A new aurora form was discovered with the help of citizen scientists". Same news both in Finnish and in English.

So that's it, it is now finally published! It was still difficult to believe, that it really happened. And soon also media heard about it, and we were flooded with contact requests from all over the world!

My role in the team was to take care about archiving news about "The Dunes" . I was doing the job with four devices, and the stream of news was endless. We received also lots of congratulations!

As I usually do, I checked aurora forecast at spaceweather.com and noticed, that my dune -photo was in the front page! I was speechless, it was so awesome to see what we had achieved! Now I knew that all those long nights spent under starry skies were not for nothing! Now one of my long time dreams had become true, to be able to get my photo published in the front page of spaceweather.com! In the evening, Chris Ratzlaff, aurora photographer from Alberta, Canada, joined our group in Facebook. He has taken a lot of photos of "The Dunes" in Canada. It was amazing, we received lots of congratulations from Alberta Aurora Chasers from Canada. People were celebrating in our Facebook group. I continued archiving news, and I was also able to archive news at spaceweather.com and at some newspaper from Australia, where they had also noticed this discovery!

I was drinking my morning coffee, and I felt a little bit sleep deprived as I had slept only for couple of hours last night. Discussion in Facebook Messenger was still going on like never before. Within 48 hours the news about "The Dunes" was published by BBC, The Guardian, El Mundo, Vanguardia and Tagesshack. The internet was flooded with "The Dunes", and I was exhausted but happy at the same time.

Jungle of news

I was thinking that I had finally archived all of the news about "The Dunes", but anyway I checked, if I could find more, and oh boy, I really found a lot of more news! After the first publication, the whole web was just about "The Dunes". Until now I had found more than 100 news about "The Dunes". It was difficult to manage it all just by myself, and the others in the group helped me. It was interesting to observe in real time how the story of "The Dunes" was going on everywhere.

In the evening of third night I was exhausted. I wanted to be up to date, but It demanded a lot from me. Finally it was time to take a break. At that time, it was fourth anniversary of the passing of my father. I was sad but happy at the same time, the memory of my father lives on in the sky as the name of the new aurora form, and people had started using "The Dunes" as a name for the new aurora form. Is there anything more an aurora enthusiast can wish for? This break filled with some sadness didn't last long as I received new photo request from Japan, here we go again!

"The Dune" -effect

The story of "The Dunes" was spreading all over the world, and soon I was asked to give an interview to an English newspaper. About 65 000 people has read the article, which is absolutely fantastic!

In 31st of January 2020 the news has became viral according to media watch of University of Helsinki. News about "The Dunes" has been published by BBC in the radio and web, by CNN, NPR, German newspapers, and by many big medias in USA and Canada.

In 17th of February 2020 there was 27 million hits in Google search for "The Dunes". Coverage of the media announcement by University of Helsinki was more than 2,5 billion at that time. It felt amazing, that about every third person of the world had heard about "The Dunes". Story by National Public Radio was shared more than 33 900 times! Our contact person in University of Helsinki told us, that they had never seen anything like that before! The list of countries, where news about "The Dunes" was published, is long, including for example Russia, USA, UK, China, Singapore, Australia, Spain, Sweden, Norway, Brazil, Vietnam, Italy, France, Canada, Germany, Romania, Moldova, Belgium, Ireland, Saudi-Arabia, Indonesia, Japan, Nigeria, etc. All of this felt amazing! It was almost supernatural, or was I just in the right place at the right time?

...and there is some more!

Later we found out, that our citizen scientist team (me, Mikko Peussa, Matti Helin and Minna Glad) would be awarded with Stella Arcti -award by Ursa Astronomical Association. It is a once in a lifetime award. This felt amazing, I was so happy!

Stella Arcti -awards event was organized as online event in 5th of December 2020 because of "The Pandemic". Even during the day, I was thinking, did I do enough, have I earned this award? But soon I realized, that I have earned it! All those long nights under starry skies were not just for nothing! Waiting for the event was long, because the event had been canceled and postponed many times because of "The Pandemic".

And all the time I had to keep this as a secret, I couldn't tell anyone before it was official. But it felt like a deja-vu, because I had kept the Dune discovery as a secret for so long time. So nothing new under The Sun! Then I had to prepare a short background story for the event, find representative photos and prepare some answers for media. That 1,5 weeks went quickly, and schedule was tight, but I was able to prepare everything before the event. The event was organized as a Zoom meeting. I was learning to use Zoom in the previous night. I had to also print the Award for the event, because they real one had not arrived timely to me.

The Big Day

I spent the evening with my husband and Juha Ojanperä. The boys were setting up the computer and everything we needed, and I was drinking some coffee. I was nervous about the internet connection, would it be good enough? Finally everything was ready, and the event was about to start. While waiting for my turn in the ceremony, I was going through a lot of different emotions. I was thinking about passing of my mom and dad, "The Book", discovery of "The Dunes", and now Stella Arcti -award. It all happened so quickly!

A moment before my presentation, I had a flashback from the past, when I was about 6 year old, I was with my dad in Lapland watching northern lights for the first time of my life! I suddenly remembered clearly many starry nights under the dark skies of Kullaa and hunderstorms in Pyhäjärvi, that I witnessed together with my dad. I was emotional and speechless. Somehow I made it anyway! The presentation went well after all. I was missing my dad. I wish he had been with me now. Anyway I was happy and somehow relieved. The event went well, and connection didn't break. It was nice to see people, even if via Zoom meeting. The feeling was amazing, and it lasted for long time!

When Ursa published media announcement about Stella Arcti -awards, the "Dune -effect", happened again! The news was shared all over the world. People wanted something different, all of us didn't want to hear anything about "The Pandemic" anymore"

When the news about the Stella Arcti -awards was published, I received tons of congratulations and messages from every direction. Also Alberta Aurora Chasers -group sent their congratulations to us. It felt so good to receive recognition from colleagues from all over the world. It has been quite a journey!

For the final words, here is a quote from my speech in the Stella Arcti event: "Thank you for the Dune -team, working with you has taught to me, what working as a team is at its best, what we can achieve when all of us are working towards the same goal, and when all of us have the determination and no one of us will give up. "The Dunes" were a real puzzle, it wouldn't have been possible to solve it without the group. All of us helped to bring about the missing pieces and solve the mystery. It has been an honor to be with this amazing group. Many thanks for my hobby colleagues for their help and support, many thanks for my friends and husband who have been very patient with my endless aurora chasing nights, thanks for my mom and dad who introduced me to the wonderful world of natural phenomena"

We are the champions, my friend! Everything is possible, unless proven otherwise. This is the last stop of this journey, thank you for being with me! Thank you for time and attention, thank you for reading this story!

By the way, if some of you have photos of northern lights that look like "The Dunes" archived in your hard drives, slides or photos, please help the aurora researchers and publish your photos in The Skywarden, where they can be shared and accessed by everyone from all over the world. Thank you!

Thank you Juha Ojanperä for translation.