One of the most breathtaking sights on a dark night is the appearance of the northern lights, or aurora borealis. Every time I camp under clear dark skies, I try to identify constellations and the Milky Way, but I have only had the good fortune to see the northern lights once. Staying in a cabin on northern Vancouver Island, it took me a few seconds to realize what I was seeing. Being a city dweller, I was not expecting this beautiful and ghostly apparition.
In order to learn a little more about the phenomenon and maximize my chances of a repeat sighting, I have gathered a few tips for my next trip:
i) Auroras are beautiful and sometimes dramatic displays of light in the night sky. Auroras occur when charged particles collide with gases in the Earth’s upper atmosphere. This fills the sky with colourful light, which can appear to pulse, transform and dance across the sky. The intensity of these flares rise and fall according to multi-year solar cycles. Though solar activity can be hard to predict, a solar maximum occurred in 2013 and astronomers expect slightly less solar activity in 2015.
ii) The farther north you go, the better your chances of seeing it, but if a trip to the Yukon Territory, the Northwest Territories, or Nunavut is not in your plans this year, don’t despair. Even during low solar activity periods, the northern lights are visible in many parts of BC.
iii) A clear sky will help your viewing chances. Avoid campsites near cities or other sources of light pollution. In your search for dark skies, you also want to avoid a full moon, and overcast skies, both of which can impact the visibility of the aurora. Your chances are greater in clear, inland spots away from cloudy coastal weather. Flat terrain, as opposed to high mountain valleys, will also help.
Canadian Geographic has some resources to help in your search for the northern lights. They recommend the area around Dawson Creek BC, and Muncho Lake Provincial Park. You might also look at Beaver Point Resort in Burns Lake BC, or one of a number of options in the Peace River region.
The Canadian Space Agency’s Aurora Viewing Tips page has many additional tips for watching the night skies, as well as excellent photography advice for the camera enthusiast. For real-time announcements and news of aurora sightings, you can also follow the twitter feed @AuroraMAX from Yellowknife.