By Expedition Leader Katrina Rosen
I chose one of the best years to be an Expedition Leader for Nat Hab’s Northern Lights & Arctic Exploration
adventure. If you’re new to this phenomenon as well, this winter is an incredible time to bear witness to the aurora borealis. If we thought the lights were dancing before, we are now in for a full-on party!
Perhaps even in your community circle, people have spoken more of the northern lights than you heard before. This isn’t just happenstance. Scientists have been forecasting a surge in aurora activity that will surpass anything we have seen in the previous 20 years. We are on the verge of a very strong aurora season!
Understanding the Aurora
For centuries, scientists, philosophers and astronomers have recorded vast amounts of data about dark spots on the sun. Gradually, they realized that there was a link between those dark spots (sunspots) and solar activity and energy levels. The sun’s energy is not always the same—sometimes the sun is calm, and at other times, it is like a backyard bonfire releasing an incredible number of sparks. It changes over an 11-year cycle, and scientists can predict the cycle’s strength.
As scientists discovered more about the sun, they also became confident that those outbursts of fiery electrical energy from the sun were the direct cause of aurora. The sun produces a constant stream of solar wind that carries charged particles across the 93 million miles between the sun and Earth. Those charged electrons and protons collide with Earth’s magnetosphere 2 to 4 days later. But when the sun is more active, it can release solar flares or even massive solar outbursts called coronal mass ejections.
Our magnetosphere protects us from the streaming solar wind, and usually, we don’t notice the particles at all. But when the supercharged electrons from a solar storm reach the magnetosphere, they are so strong that they can travel further along the magnetic field and meet with gases in our atmosphere, oxygen and nitrogen, exciting them. The electrons keep bouncing around the atmosphere until they have slowed down enough by all the collisions.
Meanwhile, newly excited oxygen atoms and animated nitrogen molecules produce tiny flashes of light. Billions of flashes may appear at similar times. When those flashes fill our airspace, we draw our eyes to the skies, and our minds are blown as this celestial light flows from one pattern to the next.
Where and When to See the Northern Lights
It’s interesting to note that even though we are heading into a strong aurora season, you must still be in the right place at the right time to catch the spectacular show. And that place is within the auroral oval and at a time of darkness and clear skies. The charged particles from a solar storm stream along Earth’s magnetic field, and how far south or north they reach depends on how strong the storm is. But it’s always tied to the magnetic poles. This is why we can’t view the aurora from anywhere on Earth.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I imagine if the aurora happened everywhere at any time, then we wouldn’t think of them as special and unique, or consider how fortunate we are to travel and experience them!
We arrived in Churchill, Manitoba, beneath the auroral oval—the premier place to view them. It’s better even than at the same latitude in Alaska. Or farther north in Canada. Or even in Iceland, because that island of fire and ice is surrounded by open ocean in the winter, which produces more clouds. Churchill is the best spot for the best chance of viewing the best aurora.
Not only is the small northern town of Churchill incredible for the aurora, but we are kept warm and safe with specially designed places for viewing this dazzling light show. There are Aurora Domes, which are bulb-like ceilings of glass for us to watch through. Heaters and a wood fireplace warm a large teepee. There is a new cabin near the boreal forest that we can only travel to when the river is frozen.
Even though we are coming to this northern location in mid-winter, we soon forget the cold. Every worry disappears. Instead, we grasp the beauty of the night and cherish everything about this special town, including the precious ecosystems we are fortunate enough to move through and the local people we meet. We feel thankful as we exhale puffs of air and stare yonder as we know it will not last. There is an immediacy to the lights, which has a way of forcing us to be present.
The northern lights have and will come out for us. 2024 will not disappoint. We are the lucky ones.
So, get your party tutus, mitts and toques (Canadian for hat or beanie) because the dancing lights are ready to giver (Canadian word for party on!)
See you in Churchill!
Learn more about our Northern Lights & Arctic Exploration adventure