Chasing the Northern Lights in Edmonton

I feel very fortunate to have grown up in Inuvik, NT where the northern lights are relatively easy to see. I remember heading to the east channel of the Mackenzie River (a short ten minute walk from where we lived) and venturing out onto the frozen ice to gaze up at the incredible dancing aurora above. Even in Yellowknife where my parents now live, you can see the northern lights relatively frequently. Here’s an incredible shot my Dad took back in September:

DSC_4892_FLR
Aurora Borealis at km 13 of the Ingraham Trail, Yellowknife, NT, by Martin Male

Take a few minutes and check out some of the other aurora he has captured. The lights just don’t look real!

Here in Edmonton the northern lights aren’t exactly uncommon, but you do need to work a little harder to see them than they do up north. Or at least I thought you did, until I discovered the AuroraWatch service a couple years ago!

Auroral forecast from AuroraWatch.ca

The award-winning AuroraWatch service was created and is operated by a team at the University of Alberta. The service monitors geomagnetic activity in the Edmonton area and can email you for free if the northern lights might be visible. At any given time, you can visit the website to see the estimated probability of witnessing the aurora borealis in the evening (their live widget is embedded to the right). There are two alert levels – yellow when the probability is above 50%, and red when the probability is above 70%.

Since it launched back in October 2007, AuroraWatch has had more than 1.2 million visitors and currently has more than 26,000 email subscribers. Since 2009, they have issued more than 175 alerts.

So how can you ensure you get a good view? Well once you’ve received your red alert, get to a better viewing location:

The best advice for viewing aurora is to look north, after dark. Just around or before midnight is an especially good time, but the northern lights can be seen in Edmonton from early evening onwards on some very active days. Inside the city, the light pollution makes dimmer auroras harder to see – so you will get a much better view if you go to a location with darker skies outside the city.

That makes sense, right? Head outside the city and you just might get an amazing photo like this one taken by local photographer Mike Isaak back in November:

Northern Lights over Elk Island
Elk Island Aurora by Mike Isaak (purchase prints here)

He posted the photo on Twitter and received more than 330 retweets and more than 280 favorites. You can see why! Mike is also a finalist in the 2014 VISTEK Emerging Photographer competition – go vote for him!

Of course, if you know when to look and how to capture it, you don’t have to go very far at all. On the same weekend in November, photographer Kevin Tuong captured this incredible shot of the northern lights over downtown:

Northern Lights over Downtown
Northern Lights over Downtown by Kevin Tuong

I didn’t think you could see them like that within the city limits, but you can! Kevin’s photo was also popular on social media, with lots of upvotes on Reddit.

The AuroraWatch site often hosts images that photographers have sent in. It sure looks like that Remembrance Day long weekend in November was a sure-thing for aurora-viewing.

AuroraWatch won the ASTech 2013 Public Awareness Award for the unique service it provides:

“We are delighted and honoured that the impact of AuroraWatch.ca in promoting space science and technology was recognized with this ASTech Award to the Aurora Watch team,” said principal researcher Ian Mann, noting that space weather can also have more damaging consequences on the satellite, GPS and power grid infrastructure we increasingly rely on in the 21st century.

According to Environment Canada, there’s an average of about 90 nights per year when the northern lights are visible in Edmonton, and the best month is probably September. The good thing about AuroraWatch is that you no longer need to guess which nights those are!

If you love gazing up at the aurora borealis as much as I do, go sign up for the AuroraWatch Alerts. You won’t be disappointed. Also check out @aurorawatch on Twitter.

Many thanks to Mike Isaak, Kevin Tuong, and Martin Male for letting me use their excellent work to help illustrate this story.

  • Adam Rozenhart

    Great post, Mack! Question: are you named after the Mackenzie river?

    • No, but growing up there (where many things carried the name Mackenzie) was sure interesting!

  • Eclecticblogs

    Great post Mack. The aurora are something that still fascinate me even after over 23 years living in the north. Yellowknife is the Aurora Capital of the world and we receive aurora more nights than anyone else. I think the fact we are on the Canadian Shield helps with that.

    I thought I would share these sites with anyone who is thinking of traveling to Yellowknife for a visit. Yellowknife receives many thousands of visitors every year who come here to see the Aurora Borealis. Many Asian tourists come here in large groups just to see them.

    We use 3 good tools when we are looking to see if we are going to be heading out to take pictures. One is a a sky chart that tells us if we are going to have clear or at least relatively clear skies: http://cleardarksky.com/c/YllwknfNWTkey.html

    The second is similar to your AuroraWatch. It is a site that is done by Astronomy North and will let us take a look at the forecast to see what the intensity of the Aurora is going to be and what colors we can expect to see. Astronomy North also just installed 5 lighthouses around town that flash blue (weak), green (moderate) or red (active) lights to let visitors know what to expect. http://astronomynorth.com/aurora-forecast/

    The third site is called AuroraMax which is a camera based on the ground in YK that will allow you to see what is visible in the city. Of course if you see the lights on the camera, they are going to even be better once you get out of the light pollution unless you want to catch the cityscape in the picture as Kevin did above. http://www.asc-csa.gc.ca/eng/astronomy/auroramax/hd-480.asp

    The one thing we have to do to make sure we get those good pictures is to make sure you are dressed for it. When you are out in -30C weather with a -45C wind chill, you can only last so long and your equipment can only last so long…but some would say that is half the fun or battle of getting those good winter shots.

    • Great information on YK, thanks for sharing! And keep the incredible photos coming 🙂

  • A Canadian Foodie

    I have only seen them TWICE in my life – once over 20 minutes – dancing in gorgeous colours about 10 years ago. Absolute magic. Appreciate the information, Mack!
    V

  • Darrell

    You should also check out https://twitter.com/AuroraMAX run by the Canadian Space Agency. Lots of good posts and while they’re more focused on N.W.T. they have a good mapping system that often shows where in Canada you can see the lights when major solar flares happen.

  • Kate Gunn

    Hi Mack. Great story with info on how to spot these in Edmonton. I lived in Rovaniemi for a year in Finland, at the Arctic Circle, and got to see the lights often…but rarely as beautiful as I see in these photos in your story. Am going to try and be more strategic about spotting them this year and even taking some photos myself! Thanks.

  • Larissa Rogério

    Hi Mack.
    I’m from Brazil but I’m studing in Cranbrook and I always had the dream of seeing the northern lights. I don’t have money enough to go to Yellowknife so I decided to go to Edmonton and try to see from there. What is the best time for me to go end of February or end of March? There are agencies (or groups) to help some people like me to get to the better places to see? Or I have to rent a car and find by myself? My email is larinharbz@gmail.com. If you can help me I will be very thankful!! Thank you.

    Larissa B.

  • Angela Porisky

    Thank you for the wonderful video on the northern lights. It would be great to have a group of people keep in touch & perhaps go out together to view these when there are high alerts!

  • francisco partida

    hey mark… i have lots and questions and really dont know where to begin but basically…. what would be the best shot to see northern lights.. (place and month of the year)… planning on making a trip to canada to see them all the way from mexico…. thanks in advanced for your response

  • Wannaseelights

    what time has been the best time to see the Northern Lights?

  • Ibrahim Adam

    Hello Aurora fans, what is the best camera to catch aurora?
    Thanks

  • Pratik Mahendra

    Hey Mack, Thanks for the post. Mid of this June I am travelling to Inuvik and then to Tuk. Although my research says it unlikely that I will get view of Northern Lights in June but I still want to ask you just for confirmation. 🙂