Edmonton

Aurora chasers: Tips on when and how to catch the northern lights

Autumn is the perfect time for Albertans to catch a glimpse of the northern lights, and lately the celestial light show has been on full display.

the next best time to see the lights is around Oct. 21

This shot of a brilliant display of northern lights was taken in the Northwest Territories. (Submitted by Nicky Lynn Richards)

Autumn is the perfect time for Albertans to catch a glimpse of the northern lights, and lately the celestial light show has been on full display.

The equinoxes in March and September are the best times to view the aurora borealis, when the tilt of the Earth allows for these lights to be seen most clearly. This is when more solar particles can penetrate the Earth's magnetic field, making the aurora more active.

Now that we're beyond the fall equinox, the nights around Oct. 21 presents the next best opportunity. This is when the region of the sun expelling solar particles will be facing the Earth, said Frank Florian, senior manager of the planetarium and space sciences at Edmonton's Telus World of Science.

"We're anticipating that once the sun rotates around on its axis, that that region that's expelling all that material will be facing Earth again, and we might get some really strong aurora around Oct. 21," said Florian, during an interview on Edmonton AM on Friday.

"Right now, anyone going outside can look up and there's always going to be some greenish glow to the north."

There are several ways to stay up on when to go out and view the northern lights, Florian said.

The University of Alberta has an aurora watch email list that sends out alerts related to the aurora borealis, and the University of Alaska has a website with maps showing where the aurora oval is travelling.

Once you find the right night to head outside, it's best to get away from the light pollution of the city for a better view, Florian said.

"When you get a really incredible display here in the city, you'll be able to see it. But if you go out into the country where it's dark, that display turns into a glittering light show and it's just beautiful to watch."

Florian likes to view the northern lights from Elk Island National Park, but Jasper is also a popular spot where the mountains provide a backdrop.

Usually, the best time to see the lights during the fall is between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m., Florian said, but they can be seen right after sunset if the aurora display is strong enough.

The northern lights are on full display this season. We'll get some tips on when and where to see them. 7:15

Those venturing out to see the lights may notice a purple and green band of light. The band is caused by a wide ribbon of hot plasma and is part of a higher magnetic band of activity, which can be seen associated with auroral activity.

The band was officially identified just a few years ago and is called STEVE, or Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement.

STEVE has a connection to Alberta as it was aurora chasers in this province who photographed the lights, helping NASA identify it.

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