Tourists shouldn't wait for solar maximum to see northern lights, says Astronomy North president

Regardless of how much magnetic energy is being produced by the sun during solar maximum, northern communities will always get a solid display, says James Pugsley.

'Even when the sun is quiet, we're still getting beautiful auroras,' says James Pugsley

Astronomy North president James Pugsley says whether it is solar minimum or solar maximum, auroras are visible above Yellowknife, Northwest Territories – thanks in large part to the community's magnetic latitude. (Michael Hugall/CBC)

The president of Astronomy North says tourists don't have to wait for solar maximum to see the northern lights in communities across northern Canada.  

James Pugsley held public workshops on space weather training at the 2018 NWT Tourism annual general meeting last week. He taught tour operators about space weather and how it affects the northern lights.

Pugsley said regardless of how much magnetic energy is being produced by the sun during solar maximum, there will always be a solid display in northern centres such as Yellowknife, Churchill, Iqaluit and Dawson City. 

Northern communities should prepare for an increase in tourism, said Pugsley.

"We have to raise awareness of that so we don't have too many people travelling here at the peak of the solar cycle ... because the auroras are beautiful regardless if it's solar minimum or solar maximum," he said. 

What is a solar maximum?

A solar maximum occurs every 11 years. It defines the period when there is highest amount of magnetic energy on the sun's surface.

The next solar maximum could happen as early as 2023, said Pugsley, adding an increase in magnetic turbulence during solar maximum usually draws a bigger crowd to the North for the lights.

"Ambient solar wind sweeping across Earth and interacting with the magnetic field creates conditions that are right for the northern lights, whether the sun is active or not," he said.

University professor weighs in

Astronomy North has partnered with the Canadian Space Agency and the University of Calgary, collecting data on the northern lights.

David Knudsen is the head of the astronomy and physics department at the University of Calgary.

He said it's definitely possible to see some "cool stuff" outside the solar maximum, but it's also possible to track the frequency of the really intense storms using the solar cycle.

"The solar cycle has a huge effect on the intensity and the frequency of the aurora," said Knudsen, adding people in Calgary usually see the lights once a month. 

The sun is unpredictable

Pugsley said scientists are trying to better understand what is goes on in our star, every day. 

Astronomy North president, James Pugsley. (Michael Hugall/CBC)

"It's so important that we understand studying of the sun will lead to a better enhanced awareness of the impacts on the environment," he said. "The conditions we see today were not being monitored hundreds of years ago, so this is in some ways a new area of study." 

In 2006, scientists created a panel to predict what would happen during the last solar cycle. Early predictions told the public this cycle was going to be the strongest in 50 years, said Pugsley. 

He said as time went on, predictions were modified. 

"It ended up being one of the weakest solar cycles," he said. "What that tells us is even the experts are trying to better understand this issue."

The next solar cycle is expected to begin in April 2019, early predictions from scientists indicate the upcoming cycle is going to be similar to the last one, but maybe a bit stronger, said Pugsley.