Chris Ratzlaff first saw the atmospheric phenomenon he would jokingly call "Steve" while out hunting for the aurora borealis near his hometown of Airdrie, Alta., in August of 2014. The photographer and weather enthusiast, who has been chasing auroras since 2010, initially thought the narrow strand of purplish light arcing dimly across the sky was an airplane contrail catching the glow from some light source on the ground. He never imagined that less than three years later, the phenomenon would be the subject of highly anticipated new research by the University of Calgary, attracting attention from the likes of NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) and making headline news around the world for its incongruously bland nickname.
As a boy's name, its popularity last peaked in the 1950s, but right now, Steve is hot, literally: based on measurements taken by the ESA's Swarm magnetic field mission during a Steve event that was corroborated by ground observations, Steve appears to be a narrow, fast-flowing jet of gas that in this instance caused the temperature 300 kilometres above the Earth's surface to jump by 3,000 C. Eric Donovan, a professor at the University of Calgary who has been studying Steve for about a year, told Gizmodo he now has a theory about what's behind the phenomenon, but is staying mum until he publishes his research.
One thing Donovan isn't keeping quiet about is the fact that without citizen scientists like Ratzlaff and the 8,000-member-strong Facebook group Alberta Aurora Chasers, Steve might have continued to go unnoticed. Canadian Geographic talked to Ratzlaff about how Steve went from an in-joke among hobbyists to the coolest new kid on the science block.
On the Alberta Aurora Chasers Facebook group and the growing public interest in auroras
The group dates back to 2012, but in the last two and a half years it's grown quite a bit. Prior to Steve really going public, we were at about 7,800 members and now we're over 8,000. I've tried to encourage the community to be about more than just going out and photographing auroras. I want to help people understand what causes auroras, how to look at the solar data we can get for free from NOAA and use that to see that these events are predictable and that you don't have to travel to Alaska or the Northwest Territories to see the northern lights.
On how the group helped discover Steve
With the number of people we now have staring up at the sky and going out on mediocre to moderate evenings of aurora activity, in the last year and a half members of the group started photographing the phenomenon quite regularly. Then, last year a group of us met up with Eric Donovan at a talk at the University of Calgary and Neil Zeller [another Alberta chaser and photographer] showed Eric a photo of what we had been calling a proton arc, and Eric said, "That's not a proton arc." But he didn't know what it was, so from there, he challenged us to gather information and photos of the thing.
On the naming of Steve
There’s a scene in the movie Over the Hedge where all the animals are staring at the hedge, and they’re concerned about its appearance, and one of the animals, a squirrel, says "Let’s call it Steve," which makes everyone feel a bit better about it. After we met with Eric, I put a post out on the Facebook group saying, "This phenomenon isn't a proton arc, so until we know what it is, let's call it Steve." It was an off-the-cuff reference, but it really helped to promote the discussion about what we were seeing. I don't think this story would have had the legs it has if we'd given it a more scientific name. Elizabeth MacDonald [of NASA] has proposed that it be called a Sudden Thermal Emission from Velocity Enhancement, so I have a solid feeling that the name could end up being STEVE at the end of all this!
On the power of citizen science
There are people in the Facebook group who two years ago didn’t know anything about what causes auroras and are now capturing some amazing images and contributing to the study of a phenomenon that even the scientific community didn't understand prior to a couple of years ago. That's pretty darn awesome.
On how to tell if you've seen Steve
From a mid-latitude location like Calgary or Edmonton, Steve is typically straight overhead or slightly north, but not as north as the aurora borealis themselves. It looks like an airplane contrail reaching from the eastern to the western horizon. When captured via a long exposure it looks white or pink, and sometimes looks braided, like a helix. It seems to present when the northern lights are a bit weaker; when they retreat to the north, that’s when we see Steve.
On how to see auroras
Take the time to understand the science; the basics of it are actually quite straightforward. Watch the activity of the sun, get out of the city, look up at the sky, and be prepared to stare at it in wonder. Also be prepared to lose a lot of sleep!
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.