Saturday, March 17, 2018

I'm Beginning To See The Light

If there is one defining feature of the North country, other than ice & snow, it's undoubtedly the Northern Lights, more properly referred to as the Aurora Borealis. Occurring year round, though not really visible around the summer solstice or when it's cloudy, this magical night time display will always take your breath away no matter how many times they are viewed. And no two nights are ever the same either.

The Aurora Borealis is an incredible light show caused by collisions between electrically charged particles released from the Sun, during sunspot or solar flare activity (referred to as coronal mass ejections) that collide with the oxygen and nitrogen gases in the Earth's atmosphere. Driven by solar wind these particles enter the Earth's atmosphere through the north or south pole where the Earth's magnetic field is weaker. A roughly oval shaped area near the north pole called the Auroral zone offers the best viewing opportunity and, in Canada, one of the most perfectly located viewing spots is Yellowknife.

It was a perfectly clear night when we arrived at the viewing station and the Aurora started as soon as it was dark. Driving out of town to get away from any streetlight we were quickly overwhelmed by the display that shimmered and danced across the heavens with incredible speed. Constantly shifting shape, as if an unseen hand was stirring up a cosmic light show, we never knew where to look from one moment to the next.

Overwhelmed by our incredible good fortune we spent over 4 hours in the cold night air (minus 20 Fahrenheit) watching in stunned admiration as the mostly green light kept changing the night sky. Luckily we were dressed for the occasion in specially designed thermal clothing, but was nice to get back to our hotel where we fell fast asleep after taking in all the fresh night air.

On the second night we were ready for another session under the stars but wondering how Ms. Aurora was going to top off her last performance. We need not have worried as once again the sky was lit up with yet another spectacular display of rapidly moving curtains of light. Northern lights are mostly green in colour caused by the interaction with oxygen at approximately 60 miles above Earth but they can also be purple at the edges and at an altitude of 200 miles they can be red.

It's a long way from Vancouver to see the Aurora Borealis (even further if you want to see the Southern one called Aurora Australis) and people come from around the world (particularly Asia) where it's considered good luck if you see the lights.  There's never any guarantee but, when it does all come together, you feel very privileged. It's a national treasure and it's free, no wonder so many folks are beginning to see the light.

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