Fairbanks hotel installs unique aurora attraction

an aurora globe
Artist Eric James Morris points out Fairbanks on a giant spherical model of Earth at the soon-to-be opened Aurora Discovery Institute at Pike’s Waterfront Lodge in Fairbanks. (Robyne/KUAC)

On one of the coldest days of the winter, workers in Fairbanks wired lights in a small building behind Pike’s Waterfront Lodge along the Chena River. They were helping to create the soon-to-be-opened Aurora Discovery Institute.

Pike’s general manager Liz Griswold said the plan is to provide visitors an aurora experience even if they don’t see the real thing.

“Guests always ask the hotel, ‘Will I be able to see the aurora from there?’” she said.

In the middle of the room was a 7-foot-diameter rotating globe, created by Seattle-based artist Eric James Morris. Morris, who’s built globes for the Olympic Games and the United Nations, checked projectors that shine colored lights at the top and bottom of the model Earth.

“I don’t know that anyone’s ever built a world globe that depicts the aurora borealis and aurora australis,” Morris said. “So, I thought, ‘Oh, what a wonderful opportunity to create something brand new and to highlight this spectacular natural phenomenon.’”

an aurora building
Built as a warming hut for the sledding hill at Pike’s Waterfront Lodge, the small building was quickly converted as an aurora attraction. (Courtesy Pike’s Waterfront Lodge)

The little building housing the globe was initially supposed to be a warming hut for the hotel’s sledding hill, but hotel owner Jay Ramras saw another opportunity to entertain guests who often ask about the aurora.

an Inuit comic book
A comic book cover depicting “Nelvana of the North,” is part of the displays at the Aurora Discovery Institute. (Robyne/KUAC)

“And I typically low-common-denominate down to, ‘Well, if it is clear and it’s cold and it’s after 10 p.m. there’s a chance you might see it. And if you see it, wake me up. And if it’s not too cold, I’ll go outside and look at it with you,’” Ramras said.

Looking to provide a more scientific explanation, Ramras said, he came across Morris’ website, and hatched the idea for an onsite 3-D aurora display.

“We wanted a building, our Aurora Discovery Institute, to tell guests and enthusiasts of the Aurora, how it works. And we think that this is a great STEM opportunity for K-12 kids, summer and winter,” Ramras said.

Morris’s globe is made of 12 sewn-together fabric printouts of a composite NASA photo of the Earth. It’s suspended at a 23-degree angle, just like the tilt of the Earth in relationship to the sun.

”So, it functions like a kid’s, like a giant bouncy house, with the continuously-operating blower inside, brings in air from up above through the suspension tube. It’ll stay perfectly inflated,” Morris said.

All over the globe the lights from cities in the NASA photographs were enhanced by fluorescent paint so when the globe turns toward black lights on one side of the room, all the little lights come on like they do on Earth at night.

“I owe a big debt to the space program and NASA because without the cameras and satellites imaging the Earth from space, well, first of all, we would have no idea what the Earth looked like and we wouldn’t be able to create these authentic replicas,” Morris said.

Morris said it was a challenge to find the perfect simulation of the aurora over the globe’s polar regions.

“At first, we thought we’d do it with luminescent paint, like the city lights here. But it needs to be dynamic and moving. So, I tested a bunch of different projectors and found these, you know, it’s a pretty reasonable simulation of the actual aurora,” Morris said.

The globe will be surrounded by tablets where visitors can project information onto monitors around the room. There are already interpretive signs and posters mounted on the walls, including panels from a World War II Canadian comic book.

an Inuit comic book
A poster from a Canadian WWII-era comic book is on display at the Aurora Discovery Institute. (Robyne/KUAC)

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