Are you eager to get a good glimpse of the northern lights, yet sometimes wonder what exactly it is that you’re looking at?
We’ve done a deep dive to learn about the science behind these incredible light displays, and we have some valuable tips to ensure you don’t miss a second.
What are the aurora borealis?
Expect to see some impressively vivid colours dancing across the night sky: a mix of red, pink, green, blue and purple. Green is the most common colour—it’s the easiest for our eyes to see against the dark backdrop. The colours tend to move in waves or resemble shimmering curtains that stretch out across the horizon, as described by the U.S.’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Did you know that auroras develop as a result of space weather? We have geomagnetic storms to thank for these awesome colourful displays. Auroras are the light shows that take place after storms in space have passed.
And yes, the aurora borealis and the northern lights are one and the same. You may also hear them referred to as polar lights, or aurora polaris, because they occur near the earth’s poles.
When is the best time to see the northern lights?
While auroras do occur year-round, autumn and winter are perhaps the best seasons to witness this phenomenon, especially November through February. That’s because those months offer the darkest skies and the longest evenings—all the better to maximize your sky-gazing time.
The “where” is important too of course. These stunning aurora lights appear most frequently at the earth’s poles: here in the northern hemisphere, we see the aurora borealis, but in the southern hemisphere, residents see the aurora australis.
Auroral lights begin a couple of hours after sunset and are usually best viewable near midnight local time, so you might want to take a short afternoon nap to prepare. You should also know that these displays don’t typically exhibit for all that long. They tend to last for a few minutes at a time. Expect a display to last about 15-30 minutes, though some have indeed lasted for several hours.
How can I track the northern lights?
There are a number of apps that can keep you up to date with the latest aurora activity; simply download one to keep track. Some will even notify you about any expected aurora sightings near you.
Northern lights forecasts are also available on sites like Astronomy North and Aurora Watch. AuroraMAX posts helpful alerts on both Twitter and Facebook.
Tips for the best viewing
To start, check the weather forecast. You want to ensure that the sky is clear for optimal viewing, as there’s no sense heading out only to have your view obstructed by cloud cover. Try consulting Clear Sky Charts and getting the latest, most up-to-date meteorological forecast from Environment Canada.
You’ll also want to dress appropriately so you can enjoy the show. The Canadian Space Agency recommends that you dress warmly, use a reclining chair for maximum comfort, and watch from a dark site (that is, away from city lights). Light pollution is the enemy, as are clouds, precipitation and a full moon!
The good news is that there is no one perfect spot to observe this phenomenon.
Watch from home
If this sounds like entirely too much work, you might opt instead to catch the displays from the comfort of home. Do this by visiting the AuroraMAX observatory page; when the sun sets in Yellowknife from August to May, the camera automatically turns on. You can even watch the auroras on replay.
If, however, you’re so intrigued that you want to know more, you might try your hand at tracking space storms. Space Weather Canada forecasts geomagnetic activity, which as mentioned above is responsible for creating the aurora borealis. Before you know it, you’ll be an expert on the northern lights and can share your own predictions.