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Tales of the Aurora

March 21, 2016

“Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat. ” -Theodore Roosevelt

The Bucket List. Everybody seems to have one and everybody wants to cross things off this magical checklist. I have never been a person to have a bucket list per se. I have a ever-increasing catalog of things that I want to do, but I haven’t codified them into a specific “list”. On the other hand, I guess a bucket list is not necessarily a list of things you want to do, but more of a “what do I HAVE to get done before I die?” kind of list. Now that is some pretty heavy stuff. I don’t want to get all existential, but I don’t really have something that I absolutely NEED to get done. At the risk of sounding like the Dalai Lama, I guess being a good person in society, whether in terms of contribution or in terms of being a responsible citizen, is pretty high up there for me. Maintaining good relations with my close friends and family is also squarely at the top of the list.

In comparison to lists I hear people recite, what I just told you seems incredibly mundane and unexciting. Its like comparing a Porsche or a Ferrari to a hand-cart. The reason I bring up this long winded story of my sad and empty bucket list is that about a year ago, that changed. I dropped one entry into this list. That was to see the Aurora Borealis, famously known as the Northern Lights. Its southern hemisphere, lesser-known counterpart is the Aurora Australis, or the Southern Lights.

I am not going to tell a Neil Degrasse Tyson-esque story about how the geomagnetic storms in the Earth’s atmosphere create a psychedelic dancing body of lights up in the sky. What I will say is that, ever since I heard about the Lights as a kid, I knew I wanted to see them. Again, not like a bucket list thing, but more of a “Man, I really would like to see the Aurora”. I still believe there is a fine distinction between the two.

I decided I wanted to chase the Lights in the winter of this year with a couple of friends of mine. There are a lot of things that need to be considered before going after the Lights. Location and time of year are right at the top. When we were choosing a location, we had to choose how far up north did we want to go such that there was a “good” chance of seeing the lights as well as how easy it is to get there. Typically you would want to go north of the 52 degree latitude, as thats where there is high chance of aurora activity, although there is not a rule set in stone as there have been instances of sightings south of this as well. We aren’t classic risk takers so we were trying to mitigate the risk of not seeing the aurora with being able to do activities incase we didn’t see it.

The reason time of year is important, might be self-evident, but it is imperative to have long nights so as to have extended periods of darkness for the lights to appear. So for the Northern Hemisphere, the “best” chance you might have are between the months of October and March.

We started off the globe spinning with North America. Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories of Canada, Fairbanks in Alaska, Wood Buffalo National Park and Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada were the top picks for this continent. We also looked eastward towards Europe. Iceland, Faroe Islands in Denmark, Svalbard in Norway and Northern Sweden/Lapland were the natural choices for us. And no, we weren’t going to go to Siberia to see the Lights. Not yet.

Once we had the locations, we wondered if there was any mechanism to know whether or not the Lights will occur in a certain period of time. There are some pretty sophisticated tracking systems out there. There is no universal tracker, but there are tracking systems for most regions that experience the Aurora. For example, for North American Aurora tracking, you can refer to Aurora Tracker. The biggest caveat is that there is no system that can predict this phenomenon months or even weeks in advance. The highest accuracy is available for forecasts lesser than 3 days. This doesn’t bode well for people who want to plan a trip well in advance, but it is the best shot you have at trying to see the shimmying beauty. Sure they might try to say there is a decent chance of seeing the lights next month, but that is as much as me trying to predict how many new people I will meet in the coming month. Well, I exaggerate but you get the point.

Just to give you a brief idea of what you need to look out while tracking the auroral activity, you want to have high Kp values. If the Kp values are higher than 5, then we can start thanking our stars, pun intended. Going back to whittling down our list of locations, we decided that Europe was a no-go. We didn’t have a compelling reason for the nay, mostly because all of us had been in Europe the year before and were going to revisit it this year. We also decided that Alaska and Yellowknife were too far away, because the flight times to these locations were in excess of 12 hours and we didn’t want to commit to that given that we were going to see something that we weren’t sure we would see. That left Wood Buffalo National Park and Jasper National Park. Our main concern about Wood Buffalo National Park was that there weren’t a lot of things to do around that area and in case we would not see the lights we could be pretty severely disappointed with the whole episode. Our take on this trip was “We should go for the destination and not the Northern Lights”. That put Jasper National Park firmly in the driver’s seat. I have been looking at Jasper for a while now. I follow some pretty prolific photographers like Callum Snape, who have painted an incredibly vivid picture of Jasper in my mind. I had to see it first-hand. If I wasn’t lucky enough to get the lights in all its glory,  I was going to see the beauty of the Canadian Rockies.

The other factor to consider when planning an Aurora trip is, how long you want to stay at the place. It is a bit naive and borderline ignorant, to assume that you will see the Aurora with a trip of say 2-3 days. Now you could be one of those really lucky people, of course, and see it during that time, but in all likelihood, for most of us, that is generally not how the scenario would play out. I think a week to 2 weeks is a reasonable amount of time. That accounts for changes in solar activity ( the root cause of Northern Lights ) as well as changes in weather patterns ( snowstorms, rains etc ).

The final decision maker in deciding success of your Aurora quest is how much effort you are willing to put into it. The Aurora is a most exacting phenomenon. Exacting in that, it doesn’t make anything easy for you. Just as it is impossible(sic) to say whether an aurora will occur in the future, its not easy predicting what time of the night the aurora will occur. 1am to 4am is generally the time when the Aurora wakes up. That time is, however, when we are firmly in our beds after a long activity-filled day. There are three ways to get around this.

  • The first is to suck it up and say, I AM HERE FOR THE AURORA AND BY GAR I WILL SEE IT. This declaration of intent involves you biting the bullet and staying up the whole night staring at the skies, drinking beers and talking about life and beyond while waiting for Nature’s display to get its act together.
  • The second option is to plan night drives with growlers of coffee at hand, because if nothing else, at least the driver will be awake( fingers crossed ) and can be the scout for the auroral advances.
  • The third option is to snooze and place your faith in technology. Most auroral tracking systems have email / twitter notifications of when auroral activity is about to peak.

This is the lazy man’s way of getting to see the aurora. For better or for worse, this is the route we took. Since we had early mornings and long days that involved physical activity and criss-crossing Canadian provinces by car, we did not have the luxury of staying up and waiting for the aurora. We would check on Kp values before sleeping and see if there was any indication of there being a chance of seeing the aurora. Unfortunately despite staying for 7 days in the Canadian rockies, the Kp never rose above 1.5~2, which was incredibly disappointing, but in lieu of the mindset we had before we undertook this expedition, of going for the destination and not for the northern lights,  it was something that we were wholly prepared for.

Does this mean I am not sad I didn’t see the Lights? Absolutely not. I wanted to see the lights, but I had so much fun traversing the Canadian Rockies with close friends of mine and participating in so many unique adventures, that I can say with utmost certainty, this was a most incredible experience. Does this mean that I give up on my quest for the Northern Lights? Unequivocally, NO. NO NO AND NO. This is only the first step in my attempt to see the Lights and I will continue going down this road until I see the elusive dazzler.