One of the best spots to watch the Aurora Borealis is right here in Canada. The northern lights, or Aurora Borealis, is a unique display visible in the night sky from a number of locations, including Canada and the number one spot in Canada is Yellowknife, Northwest Territories!
Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories, is along the auroral zone and during the winter months, you will have one of the best chances to see the lights in and around Yellowknife. Mid-November to the beginning of April are the optimal months and I had the opportunity to see them in person this past March.
What is the Aurora Borealis?
An aurora sometimes referred to as polar lights, northern lights (aurora borealis) or southern lights (aurora australis), is a natural light display in the Earth’s sky, predominantly seen in the high-latitude regions (around the Arctic and Antarctic).
Auroras are produced when the magnetosphere is sufficiently disturbed by the solar wind that the trajectories of charged particles in both solar wind and magnetospheric plasma, mainly in the form of electrons and protons, precipitate them into the upper atmosphere (thermosphere/exosphere) due to Earth’s magnetic field, where their energy is lost.
The resulting ionization and excitation of atmospheric constituents emits light of varying color and complexity. The form of the aurora, occurring within bands around both polar regions, is also dependent on the amount of acceleration imparted to the precipitating particles. Precipitating protons generally produce optical emissions as incident hydrogen atoms after gaining electrons from the atmosphere. Proton auroras are usually observed at lower latitudes (via Wikipedia)
Viewing the Aurora Borealis in Yellowknife
The aurora can be seen in the Yellowknife area up to 240 days of the year and during our 4 day stay in Yellowknife we had the chance to see the Aurora Borealis twice! Your chances of seeing them are pretty good on clear nights. Peak Aurora activity is usually the best in the hours before and after midnight so you’ll need to stay up late for your best chance to see them.
I recommend checking out the Astronomy North website when you arrive in Yellowknife to see when the forecast for seeing the Aurora Borealis is best. The site displays a daily and long term forecast so you can plan your viewing when you are there. There are also Northern Lighthouses located throughout Yellowknife that are specially-designed rooftop beacons equipped with a colour-changing LED lighting system that communicates information about the conditions that cause auroras in the skies above Yellowknife.
Northern Lighthouses communicate the conditions that cause auroras in the skies above Yellowknife using three colours: BLUE indicates overnight conditions will be calm, flashing GREEN indicates overnight conditions will be normal, and flashing RED indicates there is a possibility of geomagnetic storms overnight.
We were lucky enough to catch the Aurora Borealis over Great Slave Lake on one of the nights it was flashing RED.
Great Slave Lake Aurora Viewing
You don’t need to go far to catch the Aurora! This timelapse was taken on Great Slave Lake in Yellowknife which was only about a 15 minute walk from our hotel. Make sure you dress for the weather though as when we were out viewing this night it was Minus 31 degrees!
Aurora Village Aurora Viewing
The second time we saw the Aurora Borealis was at Aurora Village in Yellowknife. Since opening in November 2000, Aurora Village has become Yellowknife’s premier aurora-viewing destination. Aurora Village is entirely Aboriginal-owned by Don and Gladys Morin.
Just a 30 minute drive from Downtown Yellowknife the facilities at Aurora Village provide maximum comfort in the extremely cold environment. The grounds are spacious so you’ll have lots of room to explore and setup your camera to take pictures of the Aurora and while you are waiting for them to appear you can keep warm in their teepees which have hot coffee and tea inside as well as a wood stove with is attended by their staff all night.
How to Photograph the Aurora Borealis
Photographing the Aurora Borealis is a bit trickier than just snapping a picture in the daytime and you will need a camera with an option for Manual settings. Following these simple steps, most cameras will produce beautiful photos of the Aurora Borealis.
Step 1: Set your camera to Manual.
Step 2: Set your ISO to 1600 which is a good starting point.
Step 3: Set your Aperture to the widest f-stop your camera allows. Ideally f-2.8 or lower.
Step 4: Set your Shutter speed to 20 seconds to start and adjust shorter if needed.
Step 5: Use a Tripod. Your pictures will be blurry if you try to hand hold your camera.
Step 6: Zoom out lowest mm setting on your lens & Focus on a far off object in the sky. Stars or Moon work well or if possible pre-set your focus during the daylight.
Step 7: Remotely release the shutter or use the 2 second self timer on your camera to eliminate shake.
You will probably need to adjust these settings suggestions slightly based on your camera and the lens you are using. Don’t be afraid to play around with your settings to get the best possible photo! I’ll do up a separate blog post with more in depth instructions and link to it here when it’s done.
How to Get to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories?
Our trip to Yellowknife was arranged by Journeys by Escapes. Journeys is a 100% Canadian Owned and Operated company and they did an amazing job helping us plan and book our 4 day trip to Yellowknife!
I can highly recommend them if you are planning your own adventure to Yellowknife!