Northern Lights

Three out of every four days of the year, there are northern lights in Churchill. Of course, some of these days are naturally in summer (although, we have seen incredible aurora on July 28, 2004!) but you get the picture. Churchill is a great place to see the northern lights.

In fact, it is one of the best places in the world to see northern lights. And I am not just saying that because I want you to come here and buy more newspapers. Its true!

Churchill is directly under the Auroral Oval. What is the Auroral Oval? Glad you asked, because I just happened to research it for this article. The Auroral Oval was first discovered in 1881 by Swiss scientist Herman Fritz. His book, ‘Das Polarlicht’ (not to be confused with ‘Das Boot’ which is about submarines), describes this band around each pole where aurora are most brilliant and most frequent. The auroral oval reflects the earth’s magnetic field and the earth’s magnetic field ‘creates’ the northern lights.

The oval was ‘mapped’ by researchers starting in 1957, the International Geophysical Year. Much of this research was done from the Churchill Research Rocket Range where over 3,000 high-altitude sounding rockets were fired in experiments between 1957 and 1985. Sponsored by the American and Canadian military, this research is the basis of much of our present knowledge of the aurora.

We know that the aurora is created by solar particles hurtling toward earth. These ‘sun rays’ crash into our atmosphere, and this collision creates light particles – often brilliant green, yellow or purple waves.

Watch the sun (not literally – that’s why pirates endup with eye patches…) but watch its activity. Solar flares and sunspots signal the coming of northern lights. An active sun usually means a brilliant solar display on earth – in about three days.

Researchers discovered that auroral displays occur between 90 and 150 km above ground (though some may be higher than 300km), and that aurora are most intense and most frequent between ten o’clock and midnight. They found that October, February and March are the most active months for auroral activity.

They are just beginning to admit that there may be sounds, such as crackling or popping, associated with some aurora displays. But they will not tell you that, just yet.

Another thing they will not tell you is that the aurora are the spirits of our ancestors trying to contact us. Or simply our ancestors playing a game of ‘soccer’ with a walrus skull across the sky and if you whistle at them, they will come down and take you away to join the game. (If you find yourself in this precarious situation, just clap your hands!)

They will not tell you that the lights are the distant fires of another world or an ethereal force come to wreak vengeance. They will not tellyou that the light is caused from the sparks of hundreds of thousands of caribou winding their way across the sky.

But I will tell you that on every northern lights tour that I have guided (and many polar bear tours) we have seen incredible northern lights – better than the best most people have seen in their lives. Of course, I can also tell you that the Inuit myth that ‘He who looks upon the Aurora too long goes mad’ is completely false. Whee hee heee!!!

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