- What are the northern lights?
- What causes the northern lights?
- When is the best time to see the northern lights?
- Churchill, Manitoba
- Athabasca, Alberta
- Yellowknife, NWT
- Lake Superior Provincial Park, Ontario
- Iqaluit, Nunavut
- Whitehorse, Yukon
- Cambridge Bay, Nunavut
- Banff, Alberta
- Tuktoyaktuk, NWT
- Fort McMurray, Alberta
What are the northern lights?
The northern lights or aurora borealis is a natural phenomenon that produces bright, colorful and dynamic light displays in the sky most commonly occurring in the auroral zones around the north and south poles.
Typically pale green or white-gray in color, they can also be shades of yellow, blue, red and violet. Known for their waving streamers or rippling curtains of glistening colour, they may appear in other forms including mild glow, patches that look like clouds, arcs, and upward reaching rays. The auroras can extend from altitudes of 65 to 650 km above the earth’s surface.
They are known as aurora borealis in the northern hemisphere and aurora australis in the southern hemisphere. Galileo Galilei coined the term “aurora borealis” in 1619 AD, after Aurora, the Roman goddess of morning and borealis, the Greek name for the north wind.
What causes the northern lights?
The northern lights are caused when charged particles from the sun collide with and excite gas molecules in the Earth’s atmosphere, resulting in large bands of small bursts of light of varying color and intensity.
The sun’s surface is millions of degrees Celsius and interactions between the gas molecules are explosive. High energy electrons, protons and particles are thrown from the sun’s atmosphere by the rotation of the sun and are blown towards the earth by the solar wind.
Reaching earth in 2 to 3 days, most of these particles are deflected by the earth’s magnetic field, but the field is weakest at the north and south magnetic poles where the particles are able to enter the atmosphere and collide with gas particles. This creates a region that displays an auroral oval which is typically 3 to 6 degrees latitude wide. A geomagnetic (solar) storm caused by a solar flare will expand the oval, bringing it further south.
The color variations created are determined by the type of gas particles that the sun’s charged particles collide with which depends on the altitude the collisions take place.
Collisions at around 100 km above the earth is an area of high concentration of oxygen, which creates the common green and yellow auroras, while at altitudes lower than 100 km nitrogen is more prominent resulting in blue and purple colors. The most rare all-red auroras are due to collisions at high altitudes (240 to 320 km) where there is a low concentration of oxygen.
Green colors are more often seen because the human eye is better at detecting the green color spectrum.
The form produced is dependent on the on the acceleration passed on to the gas particles and their appearance depends on the viewer’s position.
|Color||Rarity||Gas||Altitude (km)||Solar Activity|
|Red||Rare||Oxygen (low concentration)||240+||High|
|Green||Common||Oxygen (high concentration)||100 to 240||Medium|
|Purple||Rare||Nitrogen||< 100||Very High|
|Blue||Rare||Nitrogen||< 100||Very High|
|Yellow||Uncommon||Mix of red and green||240||Medium to High|
|Pink||Uncommon||Mix of red and blue||100 to 240||Medium to High|
While they do not occur regularly, during a strong display, a noise comparable to radio static, like a faint crackling, light rustling, or hissing heard can be heard. This is created by the breaking of a layer of atmosphere separating regions of positive and negative charge.
When is the best time to see the northern lights?
The best time to see the northern lights is between 10PM and 2AM, but any time from dusk until dawn can work – as long as it is dark. Auroras are typically more fragmented later in the night.
The best time of year to see aurora borealis in Canada are the winter months of November to March as they have the longest nights (most hours of darkness) and are most likely to have crisp, clear air. That said, they can be seen all year round.
Researchers have determined that over the longer term, auroral activity is cyclical and peaks every 11 years with the solar cycle. The last peak period was in 2014, so the next peak is predicted to be around 2025.
Check the weather
You want clear skies as any sort of cloud cover will obscure the view. A night without moonlight is also ideal as light reflecting off the moon can make fainter auroras harder to see, so you may want to take lunar cycles into account.
Check the forecast
The lights are known to be brighter and more active for up to 2 days after solar activity is at its highest. Active periods are typically about 30 minutes long, and occur every two hours. The aurora is a sporadic phenomenon, occurring randomly for short periods or perhaps not at all.
Check out the University of Alberta’s Aurora Watch, Aurora Forecast or Natural Resources Canada’s Short Term Magnetic Review and Forecast to get the latest updates on auroral activity, sign up for alerts and see if tonight is a good time to see the lights! There is also the My Aurora Forecast app on Apple and Google Play.
Where can the northern lights be seen in Canada?
The northern lights most commonly occur in the auroral zone, which is between 60 and 75 degrees latitude and centred around the Earth’s magnetic pole. The closer you are to the zone, the better your chances are of seeing an aurora. That said, there can still be auroral activity in the polar cap and the sub-auroral zones. Geomagnetic storms will expand the oval to as far south as 50 degrees latitude.
A significant portion of Canada is within the auroral zone so there are many great places to view the northern lights, the best being in the territories: Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut.
In most cases, the auroras are mirrored in the northern and southern hemispheres complete with simultaneous changes in colors and shapes. However, the southern auroras are not often seen as they are concentrated around Antarctica.
Once you’re in the zone, find a spot with no artificial “light pollution” – so traveling to a small, remote community and hiking into the woods at night is best. Lastly, know which direction to look in the sky where they appear most often.
The lights are a mesmerizing and spectacular atmospheric display of nature at its best and one of the seven natural wonders of the world. They are highly sought after as they are unpredictable, elusive (could appear for minutes or hours at a time), rare (red and blue are less frequent than green), mystical (indigenous peoples believed they were spirits or torches of giants in the sky) and many of the best viewing locations are northern and remote. Many factors have to align, so few people ever get to see them in person.
Here are the best places to see the northern lights in Canada:
1. Churchill, Manitoba
Churchill is most famous for the many polar bears that invade the city from inland areas in the autumn, leading to the nickname “Polar Bear Capital of the World”. This wildlife phenomena has helped grow the city’s tourism industry. It is also well known as one of the best viewing places for the northern lights or Aurora Borealis, its scientific name.
Unlike many locations, Churchill receives spectacular northern light displays throughout much of the year. Best viewing times are from January to March. For more detailed local viewing information, see the Parks Canada Visitor Centre in Churchill in Churchill’s historic train station.
As a bonus, visit the Polar bear jail or its official name, the Polar Bear Holding Facility. It’s where wandering bears that come to town looking for food are taken until they can safely be transported back out into the wild. Nature study tours of polar bears, beluga whales, wildflowers and the lights can be booked with the Churchill Northern Studies Centre.
Getting there (map): There are no roads to Churchill. The options for travel are either air or train. Air travel to Churchill is run by Calm Air. This small Manitoba airline runs flights from Winnipeg and Thompson through Churchill and up to Rankin Inlet from Nunavut.
2. Athabasca, Alberta
Athabasca, originally named Athabasca Landing, is a town in northern Alberta. It is located 145 kilometres north of Edmonton on the banks of the Athabasca River and is the centre of Athabasca County. The town offers great northern vistas and crisp northern air, ideal for crystal clear viewing of the lights.
Try to find an area away from town lights pollution if you can such as a farm or acreage for best viewing. Athabasca University now has two auroral observatories, one on campus, and one in a much darker location in Athabasca County. Unfortunately, they are not open to the public. For more information, check in with the Athabasca Visitor Information Centre, located in the historic Athabasca Train Station on 50th Ave. It is open Tuesdays to Saturdays, 9AM to 5PM.
Getting there (map): Athabasca is located on Highway 93A, west of Icefields Parkway. It is 33 kilometres from Jasper in Alberta. The town of Jasper can be reached by the Via Rail train services tours through the Canadian Rockies or by air from Vancouver, Edmonton or Calgary.
3. Yellowknife, NWT
Yellowknife is the capital city of Canada’s Northwest Territories. It is located on the shore of the Great Slave Lake. The town provides great viewing of the northern lights from mid-November to April.
Exhibits at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, by Frame Lake near downtown, provide evidence of the area’s human and natural history. The Ingraham Trail, a scenic drive, crosses the Yellowknife River and heads east to other lakes and trails where northern light viewing is optimal. Best locations for viewing in and around Yellowknife as advised by the Yellowknife Visitor Centre are:
Getting there (map): There are a number of airlines flying into Yellowknife from Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary, including WestJet and Air Canada. There are also direct flights from Whitehorse.
4. Lake Superior Provincial Park, Ontario
Designated as a Dark-Sky Preserve by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Lake Superior Provincial Park is an area that is free of artificial light and active measures are in place to educate and promote the reduction of light pollution to the public. It is the second provincial park to receive the designation (the other being Killarney Provincial Park) and the southernmost aurora viewing location on this list.
The park’s darkness and latitude make it an excellent place to view the night sky, stargaze and watch the aurora borealis along its 150 km of maintained canoe routes, 130 km of hiking trails and 200 backcountry campsites.
Getting there (map): The nearest cities are Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay. Sault Ste. Marie to Lake Superior Provincial Park is a 1.5 hour drive and a 6 hour drive from Thunder Bay.
5. Iqaluit, Nunavut
Iqaluit is one of the coldest places to see lights in Canada. It is also the capital city of the Canadian territory of Nunavut. It is located on the vast Baffin Island in Frobisher Bay. The island is well known amongst cold weather adventurers for its ice-capped mountains and tundra valleys. Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park, near the city, is home to caribou and arctic foxes.
On a tiny island near the city, Qaummaarviit Territorial Park, contains archaeological remains of the ancient Thule people. With the crystal clear arctic air, lack of light pollution and an average of only 4 hours of daylight per day from October to April, Iqaluit is one of the best viewing places of the northern lights. However, it is cold! Make sure you take the appropriate clothing to ward of the average temperatures of -10 to -32°C.
6. Whitehorse, Yukon
Whitehorse is the capital of northwest Canada’s Yukon Territory. There are a number of tours available in Whitehorse to get the most out of your northern lights viewing experience. Check out the Aurora Center that offers packages with accommodation and airport transfers included.
Well worth seeing is the Yukon River Loop Trail that winds north past the Whitehorse Fishway fish ladder toward the S.S. Klondike, a restored sternwheeler that once serviced and supplied settlers and explorers along the Yukon River. To the south are the basalt cliffs of Miles Canyon and an old ghost town, the site of a former gold rush town.
Takhini Hot Pools is a natural hot springs located just outside the border of Whitehorse. It is a locally run business which incorporates two pools at different temperatures and has a campground with over 80 sites. It is a historic site and a very popular destination for tourists and locals and due to its location, an ideal viewing point for the northern lights.
They are located on the Alaska Highway, about a half hour’s drive from Whitehorse. One of the spring’s main claims to fame is the hosting of a weird and wonderful hair freezing contest in the winter.
As for accommodations, Northern Lights Resort & Spa has large floor to ceiling wrap around windows that open up to the inviting northern sky so you can watch the light show from your room.
Getting there (map): There are three ways to get there: plane, car, car ferry or bus. Best bet is to fly out of Vancouver International Airport.
7. Cambridge Bay, Nunavut
Nunavut is the massive, very sparsely populated territory of northern Canada that forms most of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Its islands have vast expanses of tundra, craggy mountains and remote villages, accessible only by small plane in the winter and boat in the summer.
It is famous for its northern Inuit people’s artwork, carvings and handmade clothing. Inuit art is displayed at the Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum in the capital, Iqaluit, on Baffin Island.
It’s not uncommon to see the northern lights dancing above Nunavut. Much of the territory sits north the auroral zone so there is very little light pollution to impede the view.
Unlike the other viewing locations, Nunavut has little to no aurora tourism infrastructure so it is best to do your travel and planning homework well ahead of time.
Getting there (map): Cambridge Bay can be reached quite easily by air from southern Canada. The community receives scheduled B737 jet service five days a week from Edmonton and Yellowknife via First Air, Canadian North, and Air Tindi airlines. Air travel is by far the most common means of transportation to Nunavut and its many remote communities.
8. Banff, Alberta
Banff is a very popular summer and winter resort town in Alberta, located within Banff National Park. The towering peaks of Mt. Rundle and Mt. Cascade, part of the Rocky Mountains, dominates its amazing skyline.
Banff Avenue, the main thoroughfare has many boutiques and restaurants that mix with château style hotels and souvenir shops. The surrounding 6,500 square kilometres of parkland are home to wildlife including black bears, elk, wolves, deer and grizzly bears.
Generally speaking, the best times for viewing the northern lights is between 12AM and 3AM. However, bundle up and get outside the Banff light pollution for the best viewing.
Once outside of the city, the lights can appear any time from September through to April in Alberta. However, they shine their brightest from February through to April on the dark, clear nights.
Getting there (map): The easiest way to reach Banff is to fly into the Calgary International Airport, the nearest major airport. Most major airlines service Calgary including Air Canada, WestJet and many US airlines.
If renting a car, Banff is a short one and a half hour drive from Calgary through some of the most beautiful Alberta country with the Rockies looming ever closer when you leave Calgary.
9. Tuktoyaktuk, NWT
The name Tuktoyaktuk in English, is a small Inuvialuit hamlet located in the Inuvik Region of the Northwest Territories. It is situated at the northern terminus of the Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk Highway. Tuktoyaktuk is one of six Inuvialuit communities in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region.
The settlement lies north of the Arctic Circle on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, and is the only community in Canada on the Arctic Ocean that is connected to the rest of Canada by road. Formerly known as Port Brabant, the community was renamed in 1950 and was the first place in Canada to revert to the traditional Indigenous name.
Visitors are highly recommended to take a trip up the Ice Road to Tuktoyaktuk where there is little to nothing separating you from the most brilliant view of the northern lights.
Getting there (map): Not easy. In fact, up until the end of 2017, Tuktoyaktuk was only accessible via boat, plane, or a winter ice road. Now, thanks to the recently completed Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk Highway, it can be reached all year round by vehicles and is officially Canada’s first highway to the Arctic. There are flights from Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton international airports.
10. Fort McMurray, Alberta
Located in northeast Alberta well within the auroral zone, Fort McMurray is one of the most accessible and infrastructured locations on this list thanks to its importance to Canadian oil industry and population of around 80,000. The best time to view the lights is from late-August to May.
However, as it borders on being classified as a city, along with its size comes significant light pollution so you’ll have to drive out of town to get the best views which won’t be a problem as it is surrounded by boreal forest. There are lots of service roads just off highway 63 that do not have streetlights.
Locally owned and operated Northern Lights Outdoor Excursions Alberta offers a two night, three day package so you get two chances to see the lights.
Getting there (map)
Bonus: aurora borealis from space
As many of these viewing locations are in remote and/or northern regions, proper preparation and quality cold weather gear clothing is highly recommended.
What to read next
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- 23 Animals You Will Find in Canada
- 10 Most Dangerous Animals in Canada
- Tips for Editing Images of the Northern Lights
Over to you
We’re interested to know: Have you ever seen the northern lights? What’s the furthest north you’ve been in Canada? Let us know in the comments!