Seek Dark Skies for the Best Northern Lights

By Emily Baillie July 26, 2016

There are few sights more spectacular than the swirling, turning colours of the Northern Lights dancing across the night sky. Also called the aurora borealis, or just the aurora, it is one of the most alluring natural phenomenon on earth, giving us a rare glimpse into the endless universe we’re all just a tiny part of. Though the chorus of dancing lights can be experienced in far-away places like Iceland, Sweden, Alaska and Scotland, Northeastern Ontario has some of the world’s best natural light shows, right here at home.

Want to catch a glimpse of the aurora? Increase your chance of seeing Ontario’s glorious Northern Lights with these pointers!

Photo: Paul Bedhun, Gordon's Dark Sky Preserve.

Photo: Paul Bedhun, Gordon’s Dark Sky Preserve.

Dark Skies Make the Best Viewing

Although the Northern Lights can put on a show at any time of the year, the most common times for the lights to appear are in the fall, winter and early spring.  Cold, clear nights during a new moon offer the best view. Because light pollution can hinder visibility, Dark Sky Preserves are becoming more common throughout the world. These are designated areas that ban any white lights from disturbing the inky blackness of the night sky.

Gordon’s Park on Manitoulin Island is a Royal Astronomical Society of Canada designated Dark Sky Preserve and a top destination for astronomers and star-gazers. Even white light from flashlights can interfere with the full Northern Light experience. Visitors to Gordon’s Park are required to use red lights only, keeping away any ambient light and letting the viewer fully appreciate the intensity of the breathtaking night sky. If you visit at the right time, you can get an unforgettable 360 degree view of the natural light show.

Photo: Paul Bedhun, Gordon's Park Dark Sky Reserve.

Photo: Paul Bedhun, Gordon’s Park Dark Sky Reserve.

It’s no surprise that traveling north and away from populated urban areas generally increases the chances of seeing the most vivid displays of Northern Lights. The farther you are away from ambient light pollution, the more spectacular the show will be. In places like the Town of Moosonee, the Northern Lights are a regular sight throughout the year. Local hunting and fishing outfitters often find that a surprise show of dancing colors is a welcome, if unscheduled bonus to add to a guided outdoor experience.

Native Legend & Modern Science

Canada’s northern indigenous peoples were among some of the first to observe the Northern Lights. The Cree and the Ojibway have a similar word for the aurora—the Cree say Wawastew which is similar in sound to the Ojibway Wawatay. In some communities, such as Sandy Lake First Nation, the Northern Lights indicate a strong wind the next day. According to Shannon Thunderbird, a Tsimshian artist and educator, the Cree see the lights as the dancing spirits of dead relatives.

Photo: JLH3 Photography.

Photo: JLH3 Photography.

Western scientists have a different take—the Canadian Northern Lights Centre explains that auroras are the result of collisions between charged particles from the sun’s atmosphere and gaseous particles from the Earth’s atmosphere. The colour of lights we see depends on the type of gas particles in the atmosphere. Green, derived from oxygen molecules, is the most common. Lucky viewers may also see blue, purple and red auroras, depending on atmospheric conditions.  On nights when geomagnetic storm activity in the sky is high, aurora displays are particularly spectacular with colours ranging from vivid greens to fabulous reds, pinks and purples.

Tools for Sky Watchers

Having the best Northern Lights experience is a combination of luck and some science. The farther north you go, the more intense your sighting will be, but only if the show happens to be taking place during your visit.

Northern Lights at Temagami

Photo: Heather Reid.

Luckily, there are tools that can help you plan your Northern Lights experience. Because the lights are unpredictable and nature only starts the show when she’s good and ready, it can be helpful to do a bit of research.  The Canadian Magazine of Astronomy and Stargazing’s website SkyNews offers a daily updated map that shows the location, likelihood, and strength of aurora activity in our region. There’s even an Aurora Forecast app available from iTunes that will help you track nature’s light show!

Good luck and happy aurora hunting!

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