Long Islanders stationed at the right time and in the right spots were treated early Tuesday morning to a sight seldom seen this far south -- the flash and glimmer of the aurora borealis, also known as the northern lights.
"Typically, we don't see the northern lights at this latitude, or at this time of year, either. It's usually in the winter," said Joe Pollina, a meteorologist in the Upton office of the National Weather Service.
In the 11 years he has worked on Long Island, Pollina said, he has never seen the lights or fielded inquiries about them.
It was just through happenstance that the occurrence was captured by Selden photojournalist AJ "Tony" Ryan, who was tipped off Monday night after dinner by his daughter, who learned of it on Facebook.
"Hey, let's go make some memories," Ryan, 47, recalls saying. Loaded into two cars, family members headed first to Miller Place, which was too well-lit, then to Orient, where a resident pointed them to a dirt road through the woods.
Parked about 11:30 p.m. at the easternmost tip of the North Fork, the group waited a short time for the cloud cover to clear, Ryan said.
His daughter, Corissa Leavens, 22, was well-versed in the phenomenon, having lived a few years in Anchorage, Alaska, with her husband, who was stationed there with the U.S. Army.Once the clouds cleared, Ryan said, he saw the lights and "broke out the cameras and tripod," using a 30-second exposure and shooting at ISO 6400. By about 12:30 a.m., the lights were "completely gone," said Ryan, owner of Stringer News Service.
"We were there at the right hour," he said, for everything to come together.
Indeed, "auroras are one of those things where luck plays a huge part," said Sue Rose of East Meadow, president of the Amateur Observers' Society of New York.
"We knew that the potential was there for the aurora, but there's no way to predict exactly when it will, or if it will occur."
But they certainly can make an impact, she said, recalling the only one she saw on the Island, back in 1988. "The whole sky was streaming blood red," she said. "A friend called and was screaming into the phone to rush outside."Officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, parent agency of the National Weather Service, confirmed that Ryan's picture showed the aurora borealis.
"You're looking at the aurora. It's a beautiful aurora," Rodney Viereck, head of the research section at NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center, said after viewing the color photo.
"There was a very nice aurora storm last night and it was very likely visible from much of Long Island."
We had sightings from Montana, lots and lots of sightings," Viereck said.The aurora is created when charged particles from the sun collide with gases in Earth's upper atmosphere and create a magnetic storm.
Viereck said there was a chance that there would be more activity Tuesday night into Wednesday morning, "but they're tailing off. It's highly likely we won't get the same level of activity. It might be visible, but I don't think it's going to be as active."Informed of Viereck's conclusion after viewing the picture taken from Orient Point, meteorologist Pollina said: "After 11 years, a first."