There are some perks to living in the northern parts of the world, even if our long winters make that easy to forget. One of those perks certainly must be the Northern Lights. Also known as the Aurora Borealis, this dazzling light show is one of the most breathtaking natural phenomena of the high latitudes.
For thousands of years people have wondered what caused the aurora to appear in the night sky, and cultural stories from around the world have offered unique explanations. We now know auroras are caused by disturbances in the chemicals of earth’s atmosphere near the poles by streams of charged particles from the sun, also known as solar winds.
These particles excite elements in our atmosphere, which produce glowing rings of light around the poles, and the decay of these rings makes the shimmering multicoloured bands of blues, purples and greens that we see from the ground.
Getting out for good aurora sightings can be a fun way to spend the winter. Luckily, you can spot them throughout much of Alberta, not just the far north: This writer has seen them in the middle of winter near Grande Prairie, in July near Redwater, and in early September between Edmonton and Drumheller.
You can rely on more than just luck, however. The University of Alberta runs aurorawatch.com, which provides reliable forecasts for aurora sighting chances in
the Edmonton area: there's even have an email alert list you can join.
There are other ways to maximize your chances of getting a good look at the aurora too. Keep in mind what direction the lights should be visible from, and head out to a wide, open area with minimal light pollution, experts recommend.
Night sky photographer and space science enthusiast Joel Weatherly from the TELUS World of Science Edmonton adds, “Be patient. Sometimes auroral shows take a while to get going. Sometimes they fizzle out without showing much at all, and once in a while, you’ll get surprised by a brilliant display seemingly out of nowhere”.
Dressing warm and being prepared to stick around awhile is a good idea. Warm clothes, hot drinks, and extra fuel in the car are sure to make your aurora viewing trip a more pleasant one.
Aurora watching also offers a lot of fun for both amateur and professional photographers.
"Don’t expect auroras to look as they do in pictures,” said Weatherly. “Our human eyes miss out on many vivid hues that cameras have no problem capturing”.
The challenges of seeing a good view of an aurora, however, pale in comparison to getting an impressive picture of them. For those interested in night sky photography, getting to know your camera gear and the sky in your area will go a long way. However, with modern smartphones you can get surprisingly decent aurora shots with nothing more than your built-in camera. Practice, patience, and a simple tripod will do you well.
While aurora watching may not be at the forefront of what is considered a dangerous activity, driving and walking around in the dark with your eyes on the sky can come with some hazards.
“Scope out stargazing locations before visiting them in the dark. Knowing where you are going and what hazards exist is crucial to safely viewing auroras,”
As with all things in nature, space weather can be unpredictable. Many a night sky watcher has gone out looking for aurora and come home disappointed. However, even on a night when things don’t work out, take it as an opportunity to enjoy the rest of what the night sky can show you. Those of us who live in the city often forget too easily just how many stars are out there in the clear, rural skies. So, keep trying. You never know what the universe will surprise you with.