Once seen, these ethereal, multicoloured curtains of light draped across the Pole will never be forgotten.

For various technical reasons, the best place to see the Northern Lights is Canada and the best time to see them is in the Canadian springtime. For equally compelling reasons of transportation, aesthetics and commonsense, the best place in Canada to observe them is the Yukon Territory.

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The Science
You can see the aurora anywhere in high latitude when it’s dark enough, the sky is clear and the aurora is displaying. Russia, Greenland, Iceland, the top of Scandinavia and Alaska are all possible viewing regions for the aurora borealis. Conversely, at the bottom of NZ, South America and even Tasmania you can sometimes observe the aurora australis.

But the top of Canada is the best place to go because of the nature of auroras. In very simplistic terms, they are created when solar winds wash across the earth’s electromagnetic field. Both poles effectively light up at the same time. The light is concentrated within a few thousand kilometres of the magnetic field. So it’s important to know the difference between the Geographic Pole (90°N and effectively the same place as the Pole that the world rotates around) and the Magnetic Pole that is the point where the magnetic field is at right angles to the earth’s surface. The magnetic poles move a lot every day (up to 80 km) and shift about 10 km every year. When James Clark Ross discovered the northern one in 1831 it was near northern Canada’s Boothia Peninsula. On the large check in 2001 it was far to the north but still in Canada at 81.3°N, 110.8°W.  So the best displays of the Northern Lights are in Canada. But book soon – by 2050 the North Magnetic Pole will moved past the Geographic Pole to be in Siberia.

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Tricky Timing
A significant requirement for seeing the Northern Lights is total darkness. So forget summer: in these high latitudes, even by May, the night sky is too light. The Yukon’s Dawson City, for example, has 21 hours of daylight in June and a stingy 4.5 hours in December. In June the average temperature is 13.7°C but in January it’s a chilly -30.7°C. So for those who feel the cold it’s probably best to come in, say, September (13 hours, 6.5°C) when autumn is well advanced. In terms of temperature, spring doesn’t work so well as the average temperature is still below freezing in April. However, there’s considerably more chance of clear skies in spring than there is in autumn. And don’t plan to visit when the moon is full.

So the absolute best chance to see the aurora is probably at the time of the new moon in March. If you can only be there in autumn, aim for the end of August. Of course it depends on the solar activity but on a clear, moonless winter night you can see some signs of the aurora most nights and an active aurora on about half of them. Expect to see about half an hour of activity each two-hour period. A good place to check the “aurora forecast” is the University of Alaska. So rug up warmly and head to a hill away from the city lights and stay there between the hours of 10pm and 2am.  Better, yet, find a north-facing lodge out of town.

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The Experience
I’ve seen the Northern lights while visiting Churchill Manitoba to see the polar bears in fall. But the best I’ve seen have been from a plane and from a ship.

It had been a long day by the time we boarded the flight out of Northern Canada and many of us fell asleep soon after the planes wheels left the frozen ground. My mind was too filled with the experiences of the past weeks so I stayed awake. Looking out the aircraft window as we cruised at 35,000 feet, I witnessed the beginnings of the northern lights. At first they started as mere flickering flashes that looked like lightning below the horizon. But soon there were green curtains of light swaying in a cosmic wind. The cold, high altitude air was crystal clear so only the aircraft’s plastic windows detracted from the experience. I woke my companions and soon everyone in the aircraft was revelling in the show. After about 30 minutes we were too far south or the display stopped and there was nothing left to see. We all sat there smiling, glad to have shared something so special. 

The ultimate display was from a ship cruising Northern Canada late in summer. For three nights in a row we had a dazzling display of bright green northern lights each evening. We all lay on the deck in the freezing night air enthralled by the swirling lightshow overhead. On the third night (and our last on board) it culminated in a giant green whirlpool of light opening up directly overhead and the spinning point of the vortex reached down to the ship’s mast like an ethereal finger of god. 

Image credit: Government of Yukon.