MY NWT: Under Northern Skies

More than 200 Yellowknifers showed up when astronomy buff James Pugsley organized his first northern star party atop Bush Pilot’s Monument on August 27, 2003. They came to see Mars, which was making its closest approach to Earth in 50,000 years. “That night it was pretty clear that Yellowknifers had a passion for the skies,” says James, then a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.

Astronomy North was founded soon after to help people connect to the nature, culture and wonder of Canada’s northern sky through public outreach and classroom education. Northern skies are different - thanks to sunlight changing from one season to the next, dancing auroras, and elders sharing the northern sky knowledge from their ancestors. “When you observe the sun, moon and stars up here, the view is majestically different than it is at the equator.”

One of the most popular services the group provides is an aurora forecast – and predicting the conditions that cause auroras is easier that predicting the weather, James says. “In general, we watch for activity on the sun and try to anticipate when gusts of solar wind will arrive at earth.” Following a solar eruption, northerners often enjoy a dazzling light show within 2-4 days. But it’s not a perfect science. “The conditions that cause auroras are quite well known, but the aurora itself is not well understood. Science is still trying to figure out why the sky can be totally dark at 10:38 p.m. and then at 10:42 it is bright enough to read a book under the aurora.”

So what’s in the cards for the Solar Maximum in 2013? The peak of the 11-year sunspot cycle arrives. A full year of activity on the sun means people in the Northwest Territories can expect to see beautiful auroras. But James stresses that the light show will continue long after the peak. “It really doesn’t matter whether it’s Solar Maximum or Solar Minimum. To view auroras in the North all you really need is darkness, hot chocolate, clear skies and a little bit of luck.”

Aurora Viewing Tips:

  • Come at a time of year when midnight skies are dark.
  • Dress warmly and plan to be outside for hours – not minutes.
  • Peak activity often occurs in the hours before and after midnight.
  • A full moon makes stars difficult to see and auroras appear fainter.
  • Bring a tripod to keep your camera still for 15-20 seconds. Use a low aperture and set the focus to infinity. A wide angle lens is preferred. Watch how your camera reacts to different settings and adjust accordingly. “Aurora photography presents travellers with an opportunity to go home with their own trophy,” James says.
  • Whether you want to photograph the northern lights, sit at a lodge or travel by dog team, pick an aurora experience that’s right for you.