Northern lights dance in the night sky above Churchill, Canada.

Northern lights dance in the night sky above Churchill, Canada. The town known as the polar bear capital is also one of the best places in the world for seeing the northern lights.

© Madison Stevens/Polar Bears International

2/6/2020 9:35:08 PM

Northern Lights Season is Here

By Emma Acorn, Churchill Programs Manager

It’s a cold day in Churchill, Manitoba. I often check the temperature on my phone before I even get out of bed, since one of the first things I do is take my dog outside. Today, there’s an extreme cold warning: the temperature is -35 degrees Celsius (-30 Fahrenheit) and -51C with the windchill (-60F). Brrr! Dog bootie weather for sure! 

In Churchill, people get excited about low temperatures because they often mean an increased chance of seeing the aurora borealis, better known as the northern lights. This phenomenon can occur any time of year in Churchill because the town is located in the center of the northern hemisphere’s “zone of maximum auroral activity.” 

The long, dark nights of winter are the best times for viewing, as cold temperatures often bring clear skies with no clouds. February and March are considered northern lights season in Churchill, drawing visitors who brave these temperatures, bundled up in their warmest winter gear, hoping to make their dreams come true and finally see the magical dancing lights with their own eyes. (Of course, today’s weather is extreme; it isn’t always quite this cold!)

After getting back inside with my pup and before sitting down to write, I check out the Northern Lights Cam to see if my cold weather intuitions were correct. I am not disappointed at all! It looks like last night, close to midnight, green bands with pink edges were putting on an amazing show. Thanks to our partnership with explore.org and the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, you can watch the lights from the comfort of your warm living room, in real time, as volunteers (who can be located anywhere in the world!) monitor, take screenshots, answer questions, and enjoy the lights with you.  

Up until yesterday, Churchill had been snowy and cloudy, but northern lights season is really here now, and I plan on staying up late tonight! There is nothing like seeing the bands of color move and dance in the sky while your breath freezes on your eyelashes. It is humbling to see this otherworldly beauty, witness this not-so-distant power, feel small, and be reminded of a wildness that is untouched by our planet’s politics. When watching with friends, you laugh and gasp and warn each other not to look away for a second or you may miss the best part!

Years ago, chasing the lights would have been a different game, but today, of course, there are apps for that. They make predictions based on real-time satellite measurements of the solar wind and the earth’s magnetic field. Many of the folks in Churchill rely on their own combination of apps and weather reports, but truly professional tour guides take turns waking up throughout the night to go outside and check with their own eyes before knocking on the doors of guests who don’t want to miss out.

The photographers who stay out for hours in the cold are a special breed. They have their own rituals with their equipment, hand warmers, sleep cycles, and hardiness. It’s wonderful to see them find each other under the lights, with sparkles in their eyes, as they share their delight and specialized cold-weather camera tips with each other. Their actual photography skills are a wonder in themselves, let alone the fact that they hone these skills for hours in extreme cold!

This is the first northern lights season for Polar Bears International House to be open, and I am grateful to be working as the Churchill Programs Manager, sharing educational content on polar bears and their sea ice home. During northern lights season, we open the center in the afternoons (1-5 p.m. CT Monday-Saturday) as most folks stay up all night and sleep in late. I’ve found that visitors are relieved to learn the bears are either out on the ice of Hudson Bay enjoying a time of seal hunting and feasting or cuddled up with young cubs inside a maternity den. And, of course, we chat about the northern lights, too, and I love seeing faces light up as visitors describe the experience.

While PBI’s focus is on polar bears, we also work to inspire people to fall in love with the Arctic—and our Northern Lights Cam is part of that outreach. To learn more about the science behind the northern lights be sure to check out the Churchill Northern Studies Centre’s website. Be warned, though, you may have to add another trip to the bucket list!

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