Bands of green northern lights shine behind a polar bear sign in Churchill.

Bands of northern lights pulse behind a polar bear sign in Churchill, Manitoba. The town known for its polar bears is also a prime place to see northern lights.

© Dave Allcorn/Polar Bears International

5/18/2021 6:35:19 PM

The Sky Dance

By Dave Allcorn, Churchill Field Assistant

Churchill, Canada is well known as the polar bear capital of the world, but it also lays claim to being the northern lights capital. The community certainly has strong grounds to make that claim. The northern lights, or aurora, are indeed active and spectacular in the cold, clear skies of winter. The dazzling displays can be seen for about nine months of the year from September through May, the darker the sky the better. The best time to watch is when no moon is shining above.

What causes these mysterious swirls? The spiraling, vivid bands of greens and white that fill the sky with wonder: What are they exactly?
 Bands of green northern lightsGreen northern lights above spruce trees.Photo © Dave Allcorn/Polar Bears International.

The aurora is caused by electrons that are blasted from the sun and blown across the solar system by the solar winds. Sounds pretty technical and scientific, right? I guess it's like the sun belching small particles (electrons) into the air. When the electrons hit the earth’s upper atmosphere, they mix with various gases, making them glow. 

I remember one particular night. The cold was piercing, well into the minus double-digits, with a savage wind that howled across Hudson Bay. I was all bundled up, lying in a snowbank gazing at the constellation of Cassiopeia, the celestial “W-shape” that has two yellow suns. I was about to call it quits for the night as not a lot was happening, and I was getting chilled to the bone.

Just as I got up, a little dance began. (I danced a bit too—to keep warm.) Within a couple of minutes, the dance turned into a mesmerizing display of twirling purples. I wasn’t so much watching the aurora at this point, rather, I was in the aurora with surreal ribbons and sheets of light furiously streaming downward, seemingly close enough to reach!

Rare red and purple northern lights.Photo © Dave Allcorn/Polar Bears International.

The dancing sky was intense and silent, but in an instant, it stopped and vanished. It took me a moment to realize that I was now chilled beyond the bone. But being immersed in a cosmic fantasyland and a fairytale was worth being chilled all the way through to the marrow. 

The night sky is awe-inspiring. Even when the aurora isn’t giving us a show, the stars fill our minds with curiosity. What else is lurking out there?  

The summer months in these parts have an exaggerated amount of daylight. Therefore, we can’t view the aurora—but the dancing in the sky is still happening, we just don’t see it! 

What we do see in the warmer months are the thousands of beluga whales that migrate to the Churchill River estuary each year, and the polar bears that return to the windswept shores of Hudson Bay as the seasonal sea-ice breaks up and melts. The tundra will also be in full bloom during the short and snappy summer. Maybe I will dance among the blooms?

I like dancing! I like moving my feet to the beat of the sky dance! Actually, I dance to keep warm under the aurora borealis …

Keep looking up! 

On clear nights, when conditions are right, you can see the sky dance for yourself on our Northern Lights Cam in partnership with explore.org.

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