Calgary·Q&A

Aurora chaser joins David Suzuki in search of Steve for new documentary

An Airdrie man recently joined David Suzuki for a Nature of Things documentary on exploring the mysteries behind the aurora borealis, specifically a phenomena called Steve.

Chris Ratzlaff says northern lights can be enjoyed within 30 minutes of Calgary

A display of Steve, seen with the northern lights to the left. (Chris Ratzlaff)

A Calgary-area man recently joined David Suzuki for a Nature of Things documentary exploring the mysteries behind the aurora borealis — specifically, a phenomenon called Steve (Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement).

Chris Ratzlaff, a member of the Alberta Aurora Chasers who came up with the name, shared his experience with The Homestretch ahead of the documentary's premiere this Sunday.

This interview has been edited and paraphrased for clarity and length. You can listen to the complete interview here.

Chris Ratzlaff is an Airdrie-based member of the Alberta Aurora Chasers community. (Susan Holzman/CBC)

Q: What does it feel like to be featured in this film?

A: It's pretty wild to be on the Nature of Things. To have been able to chat with David Suzuki for a bit. It's pretty fun.

Q: What pulls you to the northern lights?

A: The northern lights are just this magical thing that's shining above your head. You don't really immediately understand what you're looking at, but it captivates you. It pulls you in and it wants you to go back the next time.

Q: Why are they so bright?

A: It's charged particles coming in from the sun. They're interacting with the elements in the atmosphere, oxygen and nitrogen. They're causing those elements to illuminate. It's effectively a form of precipitation.

Q: In this documentary, you go in search of Steve?

A: Steve is a phenomena that we've been seeing in the sky for years, for decades.

It wasn't always called that. It's something that the Alberta Aurora Chasers community brought to the attention of scientists from NASA and the University of Calgary.

They were interested and wanted to learn more about it. They hadn't known about it, these researchers weren't familiar with this phenomena. They suggested that we give it a name as a temporary placeholder.

We called it Steve and that kind of stuck.

The aurora borealis, known as the northern lights, have captivated and confused humans for millennia. Know, scientists and amateurs are discovering its secrets. 1:49

Q: Is the colour violet?

A: Mauve is a better description than violet. It is a very faint pink, really.

It can vary, of course, from time to time, depending on the event, but it is usually a fairly faint mauve.

Q: Is it easy to pick out?

A: It is actually fairly difficult. Most of the time Steve will be hard to see to the naked eye. It'll look a lot of times like an airplane contrail at night.

If you take a long exposure photo, you can see that's glowing, that it's emitting light, and that's when it becomes a little bit more apparent. There are some events where it is actually quite a bit brighter as well.

Q: What are the challenges, in general, to seeing the aurora?

A: There are two major challenges. When you take a trip up to Yellowknife, as you'll see in the documentary, cloud can often heavily impact your experience.

Down around Calgary, where we can see the northern lights as well, timing is the biggest thing. We need a strong solar event to give us visible northern lights and then you really have to know when to go out, when to get out of the city.

That's what our community focuses on, helping people know when they can see the lights.

Q: So you are focused on chasing the aurora from here?

A: Absolutely. Outside of that one trip that I took up to Yellowknife, I've only ever seen the aurora between Calgary and Edmonton.

Q: How often do you go out chasing?

A: I'm getting to be known as a bit of an aurora snob. I have a fairly high threshold for what I want to see. I tend to go out maybe once every one or two months.

However, there are people in our community that have a much lower threshold than me. They want to see every event of the northern lights, and you can definitely see northern lights from Calgary a couple of times a month, for sure.

Q: You are also a storm chaser. Which do you enjoy more?

A: That's a tough question. Storm chasing is certainly exciting. There's a much more compressed time where you're experiencing the event.

Aurora chasing is on the opposite end of the spectrum. It's relaxing. It's something where you can go out and you can rejuvenate and you can sort of reconnect.

Q: Is there an ideal place for Calgarians to go to see them?

A: If you get 30 minutes outside of the city on a good event night, you can see the northern lights. Our community has a Google map full of suggested locations.

It's one of Canada's greatest natural spectacles...the Northern Lights This week on the Nature of Things, David Suzuki heads to the Northwest Territories to explore the mysteries behind the aurora borealis. Chris Ratzlaff is with the Alberta Aurora Chasers group. He is featured in "the Wonder of the Northern Lights" and joins Rob in studio. 7:08

With files from CBC's Susan Holzman​ and The Homestretch.

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