That Ghostly, Glowing Light Above Canada? It’s Just Steve

The story started with a group of Canadians who were enthusiastic about finding and photographing the most stunning displays of the aurora borealis, or northern lights. They formed a Facebook group called Alberta Aurora Chasers to share information about the best and brightest displays. A few years ago, some began to notice that Steve — a strip of light that appeared a bit farther south than the northern lights — was something special.


The phenomenon was visible over Kakwa Provincial Park in Alberta in July.

Catalin Tapardel

After that, scientists began to take notice.

“The really cool thing about this is the social media providing a nice bridge between the scientific community and these amateurs, who are incredibly talented observers of the night sky,” Dr. Donovan said.

He explained that Steve is a strip of ionized gas moving through the air at about four miles per second, with temperatures as high as 10,800 degrees Fahrenheit — as hot as the earth’s core. It is about 16 miles wide and thousands of miles long, flowing from east to west across Canada.

Photographs of the phenomenon, most of which show Steve as a glowing ribbon of neon light, have captivated aurora borealis enthusiasts in Canada and far beyond.

But to the naked eye, Steve doesn’t look like this. It usually appears as an ethereal wisp of white that pales in comparison to the northern lights, faint enough that photographers in the Facebook group originally mistook it for the contrails of a plane.

But soon enough, they started looking at Steve through their camera lenses. It was only then — with help from slow shutter speeds and photo editing to dial up the color saturation — that the aurora enthusiasts could show Steve in all its pink, purple and green glory.

“We could see that it was self-illuminated,” said Chris Ratzlaff, a photographer who is the Facebook group’s administrator. “Not like a contrail, which is lit from below.”


A stitched panorama photograph shows the stream of fast-moving gas over the Cascade Ponds in Banff National Park on April 10.

Christoph Schaarschmidt

For a while, the Alberta Aurora Chasers assumed they were looking at a proton aurora, which is made of energized protons from the magnetosphere (as opposed to the energized electrons that make up the northern lights as we see them). But last year, a group of the aurora chasers went to hear the aurora borealis expert and NASA scientist Elizabeth MacDonald speak at the University of Calgary.

After the event, they retired to a nearby pub with Dr. Donovan, where a brief debate broke out. They insisted they had taken photographs of the proton aurora. Dr. Donovan doubted it, since that phenomenon is not visible to the human eye.

“I said, ‘Why don’t you show me?’” Dr. Donovan said. “They pulled up this beautiful photograph of this thing. And I’m like, ‘I don’t know what that is, but it’s not the proton aurora.’”

At Dr. Donovan’s urging, Mr. Ratzlaff — who takes his science seriously — knew he could not erroneously call it a proton aurora any longer. So the next day, he came up with the name Steve.

He admitted, somewhat reluctantly, that the idea came from a scene in the 2006 animated movie “Over the Hedge,” in which a group of forest animals are confronted with the sudden appearance of a towering row of shrubs.

“I would be a lot less afraid of it if I just knew what it was called,” says a computer-generated porcupine. A red squirrel pipes up: “Let’s call it Steve. It’s a pretty name.” And so they do.