The stunning phenomena known as an aurora occurs in ionosphere of the northern latitudes in the evenings. The total effect is called an aurora borealis, also referred to as the northern lights, and is named after the Roman goddess Aurora as well as the Greek word, Boreas, which means north winds.
The aurora borealis is only visible from the Northern Hemisphere and the closer you are to the North Pole itself the better your chances of seeing the incredible light display dance across the sky. Areas such as Yellowknife, Canada or any of the arctic islands in the northern section of Canada are prime viewing spots.
How an Aurora is Formed
The atmosphere surrounding the earth has several distinct layers, one of which is the magnetosphere, or magnetic field. The magnetosphere is full of electrons, protons, and atoms full of excitable magnetic energy. On occasion, particles from the solar magnetic in outer space creep into the magnetic field on earth where they are caught in something called the magnetotail and are swept quickly towards the earth.
The atoms involved in the collision become extra excited and their magnetic charge increases. This results in additional molecular collisions or emissions in which that extra energy is lost. That lost energy represents itself in the sky in various colors that we now call the aurora borealis or Northern Lights.
While most auroras show as green or red, it’s also possible to see blue and violet colors as well. The colors you see will depend on the level of atomic oxygen or nitrogen that is allowed to interact with the atmosphere. The amount of solar wind directed at the Earth by the Sun will have a huge impact on the color as well.
When looking at the Northern Lights you’ll notice that the lights appear differently. Some appear in the form of a “curtain” that stretches from the east to the west while others look like they are forming arcs in the sky. Some, known as “active aurora” seem to be moving. If you’re very close to an aurora when it appears you may even see it as a series of striated lines or light rays coming down to the earth from the sky.
When the Aurora Occurs
The best time of year to see an aurora borealis is between September and October or March and April of each year. They are more common during times when there are strong magnetic storms in the atmosphere.
These storms, also known as geomagnetic storms, tend to occur near the Fall and Spring equinoxes. Scientists are still trying to determine why this type of occurrence is related to the seasons when most of the other activity in the poles is not related at all.
Auroras have been reported throughout history and date back as far as the mid 1800′s. The first reported aurora occurred over August 28th and September 2nd of 1859 and was caused by an incredibly intense phenomenon known as a Carrington-Hodgson solar flare that emitted white light. The aurora was so intense it was reported to be seen not just in the United States but all over the world, including places in Australia, Japan, and Europe.
Seeing the Aurora from Yellowknife
Yellowknife is the home of a small piece of land known as Aurora Village. Aurora Village is one of the best places in Canada from which to witness the Aurora Borealis. Because it is situated under what is known as the aurora oval, those visiting this site often witness the aurora with a 360 degree view.
The folks at Aurora Village are prepared to teach you as much as possible about not only the aurora, but about local culture as well. You’ll have the opportunity to stand on the Aurora lake to witness the Northern Lights in person and will also have the opportunity to learn about the constellations, how to snowshoe, build a dream catcher, and much more.
Scientific explanations aside, the Northern Lights over Yellowknife are a breathtaking sight. For many, seeing the Northern Lights is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Make sure you work a trip to Aurora Village into your fall or spring itinerary sometime soon before you leave Northwest Canada and head back towards your Canadian hotel. It’s a trip we can guarantee you’ll never forget.