Let’s Talk Auroras


Time magazine recently named Churchill, Manitoba as one of the 'World's Greatest Places of 2023', being acknowledged as a "northern wonder". Of the many reasons it's being recognized as an incredible destination (polar bears, belugas, Indigenous cultural traditions to name a few) Churchill is also known as one of the best places on the planet to see the Northern Lights.

The science behind the Northern Lights, also known as Aurora Borealis, is fascinating. The sun constantly releases charged particles in the form of solar wind. When these particles collide with the Earth's magnetic field, they are deflected towards the poles. As the particles enter the Earth's atmosphere, they collide with gas atoms and create the beautiful and colourful light display we see in the sky.

What's even more exciting? They are expected to reach a peak next year! Scientists predict that the peak will occur during the 2024/25 season due to the upcoming solar maximum, a period of increased solar activity that happens every 11 years. During this time, the sun produces more solar flares and coronal mass ejections, which can generate more intense and frequent auroras. Tamitha Skov, a space weather expert, recently explained in a podcast interview that "we're at the beginning of what's called solar maximum, which is the peak of the solar activity cycle. It's a time when we see the most sunspots, the most solar flares, and the most coronal mass ejections." She went on to say that this increased solar activity can lead to more frequent and intense auroras in the polar regions, including the northern lights. Skov added that "we're seeing a lot of activity on the sun lately, and that's a good sign for aurora watchers." So, if you're hoping to catch a glimpse of the northern lights, now is the perfect time to plan a trip to a high-latitude location.

Additionally, the Earth's magnetic field is currently weakening, allowing more particles to enter the atmosphere and potentially create more vibrant auroras. Despite the uncertainty of predicting the exact timing and intensity of the Northern Lights, many people are eagerly anticipating this celestial spectacle.

The Northern Lights have been a source of inspiration and wonder for cultures around the world for centuries. In many Indigenous cultures, the Northern Lights are considered to be a spiritual or mystical phenomenon. For example, in Inuit culture, the lights are believed to be the spirits of the dead playing soccer with a walrus skull. In other cultures, they are seen as a sign of good luck or a symbol of fertility. They are often seen as a connection to the spiritual world and a reminder of the importance of the natural environment. Many Indigenous people believe that the Northern Lights are a way for their ancestors to communicate with them.

So, you want to see the northern lights – what are your options? "I guess it comes down to what else you want to incorporate into your trip" says Shauna Cook, our Top of The World Specialist. "If you're interested in experiencing Indigenous culture and supporting Indigenous tourism businesses, Northwest Territories, Churchill, Nunavut, and northern Quebec are amazing spots to see auroras, and have so much else to offer tourists, like dog sledding, polar bear viewing, land based experiences, and the sightseeing up north can be absolutely magical." And then there is Scandinavia. "Norway, Finland, Sweden, Iceland – all incredible destinations with amazing attractions, and great chances to see the northern lights at the right time of year." explains Shauna. Visiting these northern destinations in their colder, winter months comes with with some unique conditions. "The best times of year for northern lights are also the darkest, so you should keep in mind that you may be going on other tours with very little to no daylight, which is sort of a wild experience on its own for many people!" And as with any weather-based attraction, there's always a chance of storms and cloud coverings that hinder our chances of seeing the lights.

What about other activities if it's cloudy? "New years Eve in Iceland is essentially the only night of the year people can set off fireworks. It's a really fun time to go and celebrate ringing in the new Year." says Shauna. "There's also a very cool music festival called Iceland Airwaves that takes place in Reykjavík at the beginning of November, in different venues across the city."

We'll leave you with this poem written by Inuit Poet Kowmageak Arnakalak, also known as Anakalak. Anakalak was born in 1951 in Iqaluit, and has written several bilingual poems before his passing in 1979, including this one titled "Northern Lights":

"Dance, dance a tune unheard, to a tune uncomposed

Seemingly mystical, drawing fear to a child’s mind

Drawing curiosity to a man of science

It is believed you will behead me

If I whistle and intrude in your dancing games

Mothers and fathers have told us so

We show respect to your dancing games

But still, we do not understand why you dance so

Fathers have said you light their paths

During their travels through the night

Mothers have said you have beheaded

And played games of ballet with the head of the foolish one

Oh may I hear the tune you dance to

Oh may I know why you exist so

Dance, dance across the night skies

Dance, dance to a tune unheard, to a tune uncomposed"

(Source: Inuit Literatures ᐃᓄᐃᑦ ᐊᓪᓚᒍᓯᖏᑦ Littératures inuites)

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