The web site www.spaceweather.com was reporting that a strong geomagnetic storm was in progress as of mid-morning May 12, 2001, and that the northern lights could maybe be seen tonight in the northern United States.
I knew that that there would be no interference from the moonlight during the evening hours, and I knew that it would probably be clear out, so I made plans to do some "aurora chasing" for the evening.
Later that day, I met a friend north of Bismarck, and we arrived at our chosen location at 10:00 p.m. and quickly realized that it was way too light in the north yet for the aurora. So, we took out our folding chairs, set them on the prairie and waited.
We had a good view of the night sky, as there was no moonlight. The only interference was from the sunlight as it moved below the horizon from northwest to the north, and the city lights shining high in the sky from Bismarck-Mandan to the south.
It was a quiet night – no coyotes were howling – and our jackets kept us warm as there was a cool southeast wind.
Soon, it was 11:00 p.m. and there were no indications that there would be any northern lights. We decided to stay a little longer, just in case.
At 11:05, we were in our chairs – facing northeast – and something happened that was really quite awesome.
We were watching the dark sky to the north, and all of a sudden – like someone turned on a light switch or like someone raised a curtain – the northern lights appeared on the horizon, and magically rose above the horizon to light up an arc of about 20 degrees in the sky.
If we would have been looking south during the 3-to-4 second timeframe that this happened, we would have missed the onset of the northern lights.
And then I thought - wow, we're going to have a show tonight!
It started out good, as the activity included a diffuse glow under the arc, a couple of areas of rays, and some areas just above the horizon which got very bright.
Then, as soon as it started, it was over – about 10 minutes later at 11:15 p.m. There was a diffuse glow for awhile, and then the sky turned completely dark.
While it was a short-lived display, it was well worth the time and effort to see it. And I'll always remember how the sky went from pitch dark, to a moderately bright, but small display of the northern lights in just a few moments.