The Most Unbelievable School Night of my Entire LIfe

This narrative recounts my experiences chasing and seeing the northern lights on the night of Thursday, March 23rd, 2023, during a G4 geomagnetic storm. Please note that there may be grammatical errors, for this narrative was written merely to recount my night, and has not gone through any rigorous editing process. Above is a picture taken of the aurora from my iPhone XR (one-second exposure without night mode).

Prior to last night, I had never seen the northern lights, but as with many of you who haven't, they were at the very top of my bucket list. I had my fair share of "near misses"–that is, the G2 or G3 geomagnetic storms where the lights are just a bit too far north. I once spent, for example, a night at Newport State Park during a G2 geomagnetic storm, and unsurprisingly, I saw nothing, only for them to be visible in the same place only a few days later.

But last night, I was not disappointed. 

My story began at 11:16 P.M., approximately five minutes before I planned to go to sleep. Checking the Milwaukee Astronomical Society's "SEWI Astroimagers Group" on Slack, I saw messages from member Chad Andrist reading, "Omg pillars and dancing pulses". Immediately I found my keys, entered my car, and at 11:19 PM on a school night, I headed north alone for some clear skies and a chance to see the aurora.

I must admit that I was quite nervous while flying up I-41 to the northern unit of Kettle Moraine State Forest; the entire sky was overcast, and though I thought I saw brightness to the north, it was quickly evident that my excitement was playing tricks on me (the light domes from West Bend were culpable). I managed to make it to Kewaskum–which is 26 minutes from my house–in only 21 minutes, but I still saw nothing as, with gradually clearing skies, I exited the city and continued to head north.

It was as I was driving to my intended destination–a parking lot for the Ice Age trail that I regularly visit during the summer–that I began to see an obvious green light to my north, a scene which truly took my breath away. I simply cannot describe the emotions I felt in that first moment with words, but they'd best be described as a mix of awe, excitement and naked fear (yes, the northern lights horrified me when I first saw them). As I regained my senses (I literally could not breathe for several seconds), I texted my mother that I could see them and immediately called my closest friend, Misha (also a high schooler), at 12:02 AM on a school night. As we talked, I began to see structure in some of the aurora, and as the clouds still dominated most of the sky, I continued north. 

I eventually stopped on the side of the Kettle Moraine scenic drive just north of Long Lake so that I could get a more unobstructed view of the northern lights. As my eyes adjusted, and while I was still on call, I began to see the "pulses"--the dashing waves of light that moved from north to south. The pulses were relatively faint and sporadic without the presence of a strong substorm. Much of the aurora action was confined solely to the northern horizon, with only a bright green glow evident (with some breaking, but no structure) above the trees. It was here that I got my first picture of the aurora, which I sent to my friend after he asked me to take a picture for him:


As I was parked on a busy state highway, I was compelled to find a quieter spot. I found a side road off the highway with an excellent view to the north, and turned off my car to improve my view. As I watched, a police officer drove by, later turning around after realizing that, at 12:30 AM, I was standing outside of my car. As he came up, I let him know that I was looking at the aurora and asked if he wanted to take a look, to which he turned off his patrol car's lights and took a look with me (it was his first time seeing them too). It was later revealed that he was looking for a runaway cow! I had to make a rural-urban joke, being that I am from the Milwaukee area. After a few minutes of observing, he recommenced his search for the runaway cow.

I spent a few more minutes there, but as the clouds continued to push north, I was forced once again to drive further north. I drove for almost thirty minutes until I was north of Plymouth, WI, and found a spot to park on the side of another state road.

Less than a minute after I turned off my car, I could see a visible change in the aurora: sections were growing significantly brighter, to the point at which the lights to the north were casting faint shadows on the ground. The green grew significantly brighter, and I could even easily see red naked eye, and obvious structure began to show up to the north. Shortly after that, the pulses grew to a feverish pace, and a constant (and, much like the waves in a hurricane, extremely rapid) flow of light ensued. The structured auroras became evident directly overhead as the pulses continued, and the entire sky began to appear liquid, fluid, viscous, as if the waves of nearby Lake Michigan. Even directly above, the Big Dipper was being constantly impacted with the pulses. Here, I got some of my best pictures:


Much of the attention was dedicated to the substorm at 9:30-10:00 PM, perhaps because so many more were able to see the burst (which was reported as far south as Phoenix, Arizona), yet that substorm was likely substantially weaker than the one in the early morning hours (at this point, it is 1:00 AM). The measured KP value was at 8 (the second-highest value!) at this moment, leading to a G4 geomagnetic storm warning. At one point, there were waves visible in the high south from my vantage point.

As the clouds continued to close in, I moved even further north, reaching my northernmost point northwest of St. Anna, Wisconsin, near Marytown, which is northeast of Fond du Lac and a few miles from the shores of Lake Winnebago. I spent approximately an hour here (until 2:15 AM), gazing at the auroras and slowly freezing under the frosty weather. While trying to get a nicer image with a phone that has no night mode, I began to hear noises coming from the utility poles across the street; the grounding wires or something connected to them were vibrating in the pole due to the intense magnetism! The interactions between earth's magnetic field and the particles released in the coronal mass ejection led to intense currents in the ground, which could explain why the grounding rod was likely what was making the noise. I could hear the noise, which I found to actually somewhat follow the pulses of the aurora! (All of this I will be sending to my physics teacher, by the way). 

As that hour--and thus my night ended--the aurora began to weaken and, tired and cold, I started my car and began driving south. I had almost no FM radio access for much of the trip home (I do not know if there was a warning about a radio blackout–plus radio blackouts tend to happen on the sunlit side of earth during the warnings–but it was quite an intriguing moment). At 3:30 AM, I arrived home, crashed into my bed and got less than four hours of sleep before I woke up for school later that morning. Still mesmerized from the night before, I told everyone I saw at school about the aurora (including half the teachers in the high school, it seemed like). Few, unfortunately, saw them, but the northern lights were certainly the topic of the morning; before leaving at 10:10 AM, I gave a short presentation to an Earth science class on what I saw last night and what causes the aurora. After that presentation, I immediately drove home and went back to sleep, later waking up at 2:57 PM for track practice.

So that is my story. I truly can say, without reservation, that last night was the best and most unbelievable school night of my entire life, and my second best night ever in general. Seeing the northern lights was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me.


  1. So cool! It's on my bucket list to see the Northern Lights. I enjoyed reading about your awesome sighting.

  2. Amazing and an experience you will remember forever!


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