Northern Adventures: Chasing the Aurora

18 Nov Northern Adventures: Chasing the Aurora

©Eric Rock, Natural Habitat Adventures.

©Eric Rock, Natural Habitat Adventures.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw the northern lights.

I was in Skagway, in Southeast Alaska, where I was working as a tour guide for the summer. It was late August, and the sky had finally darkened for a few hours of night. I was riding the midnight train on the White Pass & Yukon Route railway, bound for Whitehorse.

As the historic train clattered along the narrow-gauge track into the mountains, I stood on the platform off the end of the last car, feeling the sharp bite of the north wind that had moved in to herald autumn’s arrival.

The stars were sparkling like crystals against black velvet when a white glow began to appear to the northeast. I waited for a moonrise over the mountains, but the moon never showed its face. Instead, the glow grew bigger and began to undulate, taking on a pale green cast, and I realized I was witnessing the aurora borealis.

I’ve seen the northern lights since on a few occasions — elsewhere in Alaska, over Churchill, Manitoba on a November polar bear expedition, and from a midnight airplane flight over the Arctic — and my sense of awe is as profound every time.

Travelers around the world are enchanted with chasing the aurora, and northern lights tourism is growing. North Norway, for instance, has seen a four-fold rise in visitors over the past decade, due in large part to aurora-chasers. To meet increased demand, Natural Habitat Adventures has nearly doubled departures of its northern lights tours in Churchill, Canada, over the last couple years. More people are traveling to experience the wonder of the aurora, and they’re telling their friends that this is a “life list” experience they must not miss.


Tales of Origin

Northern lights over an inukshuk sculpture, a human-like figure made of piled stones used by Inuit people, on the tundra outside Churchill. © Court Whelan.

Northern lights over an inukshuk sculpture, a human-like figure made of piled stones used by Inuit people, on the tundra outside Churchill. ©Court Whelan.

It’s no surprise that many northern cultures created mythical explanations for the aurora, named for the Roman goddess of dawn. Some Inuit believe the lights are torches in the hands of spirits seeking the souls of the recently deceased, lighting the way over the edge of the material world. Other stories hold that the lights are visible spirits of hunted animals or unborn children playing in the heavens. In Norse mythology, the aurora was a fire bridge to the sky built by the gods.

Auroras often appear as curtains of light, though sometimes they take on the shape of an arc or a spiral. Most often they are green, though they can sometimes be pink, red or violet. And while the scientific explanation for this ethereal display is less evocative than the legends, it’s certainly fascinating.

The shimmering lights are created when violent storms on the surface of the sun cause flares that throw charged particles into space. Carried outward by the solar wind, these protons and electrons collide with Earth’s upper atmosphere, creating a magnetic reaction that causes the phenomenon of the aurora. The colors are determined by gases, which give off different colors when their atoms are agitated. Oxygen creates the aurora’s most common green color, while nitrogen creates blue and red. Rare all-red auroras are produced by high-altitude oxygen, at heights of up to 200 miles.

But why do we tend to see the aurora borealis only in the far-northern sky, and its counterpart, the aurora australis, over similar southerly latitudes?

The answer lies in the Earth’s magnetic field. When the solar particles meet Earth’s atmosphere, they are drawn to the planet’s magnetic poles, which, like the geographic North and South poles, are found at Earth’s extreme latitudes. The particles gather into two ovals that encircle the Earth, and the energy released appears as a luminous, shifting glow, often visible just below the polar zones about 60-150 miles above our heads. Winter and early spring are typically the best time to see the lights, because of the extended darkness and clearer skies.


Auroral Cycles

Northern lights over the tundra near Churchill. ©Court Whelan.

Northern lights over the tundra near Churchill. ©Court Whelan.

Researchers have discovered that auroral activity is cyclic: as the sun cycles through periods of more frequent and intense sunspots, more frequent and vivid auroras also occur. NASA offers an engaging web guide with images and charts that provide clear illustrations of how the aurora works.

Auroral activity peaks roughly every 11 years. Currently, we are coming down from the most recent peak in 2014, but the winter ahead holds potential for some strong displays. September through March is the best time to see the lights, and the best places are those directly beneath the auroral oval: above the 60th parallel in Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Siberia. Plan to observe between 11PM to 2AM, which are usually peak hours for visibility.

Several web resources are available to track auroral activity. They monitor the sun, measure the solar wind and make aurora predictions, giving you a chance to “chase the lights.” After a large blast of solar wind strikes the Earth, for instance, there’s a very good chance of a northern lights display one to three nights later.

Scroll down NOAA’s Space Weather Enthusiasts Dashboard to monitor the solar cycle and solar wind, and you can find the aurora forecast by itself, too. The model shows the span and intensity of the auroral oval superimposed above the Earth, with probability of visibility indicated.

You can also track and learn more about the northern lights through the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute. The site includes maps with a daily aurora forecast. It also features A Traveler’s Guide to the Aurora Borealis. The guide helps travelers predict where and when their odds of seeing the lights are best, so they can plan a trip to an optimal location at the right time of year. You may also wish to plan your journey to coincide with a new moon, for the darkest skies.


See the Lights for Yourself

Aurora display outside the Churchill Northern Studies Center, where travelers on Natural Habitat Adventures' Northern Lights & Arctic Cultures tours learn to make a traditional snow-block igloo. ©Court Whelan.

Aurora display outside the Churchill Northern Studies Center, where travelers on Natural Habitat Adventures’ Northern Lights & Arctic Cultures tours learn to make a traditional snow-block igloo. ©Court Whelan.

Inspired to chase the aurora? Try hopping on a tour to maximize your odds. Here are a few from Adventure Collection member companies:

Off the Beaten Path heads north to experience Alaska’s Winter Magic, a 6-day, 5-night adventure traveling from Fairbanks to Anchorage March 19-24, 2017. Chena Hot Springs is a highlight, with excellent northern lights viewing opportunities from its mineral pools; there’s also a snowcoach outing to a viewpoint overlooking a vast expanse of spruce forest, miles away from any city lights. Guests stay warm in a heated yurt, stepping outside to ooh and ahhh when the lights appear. There are daytime activities as well, like ice skating on the pond or snowshoeing and cross-country skiing on the resort’s 440-acre network of trails. Excursions in the Chugach Mountains, Prince William Sound and Seward round out the active itinerary, with a chance to drive a dog team over wilderness terrain to Exit Glacier.

Natural Habitat Adventures takes you to Canada for a Northern Lights & Arctic Cultures experience in Churchill. While this small outpost town on Hudson Bay is most famous for its fall polar bear viewing, the aurora takes center stage on departures offered from late January through late March. Nat Hab offers either a 6- or 8-day trip, depending on whether travelers prefer to fly between Winnipeg and Churchill or take the 2-day Tundra Train, with northern lights viewing opportunities in a glass dome car. Guests watch for the lights inside a heated glass Aurora Pod and also from circular Aurora Domes. Daytime activities include dog sledding, igloo-building and a visit to the Churchill Northern Studies Center.

You could also get lucky and see the northern lights on other Alaska, Iceland and Greenland adventures in late summer. Check out late August or September departures of GeoEx’s new Iceland trip, Lindblad Expeditions’ small-ship Arctic cruises, and Nat Hab’s Base Camp Greenland adventure.


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Wendy Redal
Wendy Redal is a passionate writer and traveler with a focus on nature, wildlife, food and the environment. Her adventures have taken her to 60 countries and all 50 states, including face to face with gorillas in the Congo, snorkeling with sea lions in the Galapagos, wine tasting in the Republic of Georgia, and trekking on horseback across Mongolia. A former tour director in Alaska, Canada, the western U.S. and New England, Wendy today enjoys crafting and guiding private group trips around the world, in addition to her marketing communications job in the adventure travel industry. She holds a PhD in media studies, an MA in journalism and a BA in history and previously worked with the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. Wendy’s travel writing has appeared in the Huffington Post, Budget Travel, Alaska magazine, World Wildlife, Gaiam Life and Good Nature Travel.
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