Sunday, March 22, 2015

Seeing the Aurora Borealis in Edmonton

One thing I've dreamed of since I was a child was seeing the aurora borealis, so you can only imagine my excitement at realizing that I had chosen to move to a city for residency sufficiently far north for this dream to bear out. Sure, it's already spring in Vancouver and here in Edmonton we're working on clearing a fresh foot of snow, but northern lights >> cherry blossoms in my opinion, and are one more reason why living in the great white north is more awesome than you'd think.

Since last summer, I've been keeping my eye on the AuroraWatch website, a venture by the University of Alberta to monitor Edmonton's geomagnetic activity and generate a real-time probability of witnessing an aurora. When the probability reaches 50%, a yellow email alert is issued; at 70%, a red alert is sent out.
aurora watch edmonton
As I wrote about in November, a red alert doesn't guarantee that you'll step out of your front door and be greeted by a dazzling light show. In fact, at this low latitude the aurora are faint at best and generally not even visible within city limits. This time around, when met with the trifecta of a red alert, clear skies, and relatively warm weather, I knew what I had to do -- get as far away from the light pollution as I could manage!

Earlier this week yellow and red alert emails were arriving nightly, the media was abuzz about a solar storm, and brilliant aurora borealis photos were popping up on Twitter and Instagram. On Tuesday evening, after reading on Twitter that they were visible within the city and even seeing a band of green on the university's north-facing webcam, I decided to take my chances and head to darker skies.
edmonton aurora borealis
a mysterious green band on the U of A EAS webcam -- and bonus: green High Level Bridge for St. Patrick's Day
I drove for half an hour eastward, through the city until Baseline Road became Township Road 530, abruptly losing its streetlights and narrowing to two lanes as it entered the farmland. I switched on my high beams and drove a few minutes further before turning off on Range Road 224. I pulled onto the shoulder by a farmer's field, facing north, and turned off the car.

The whole drive out of the city I'd been glimpsing northward, looking for any sign of light in the sky. Seeing nothing, my hopes were beginning to fall.

It was impressively dark in the countryside though, despite just being a few kilometres beyond city limits. Looking westward I could see the glow of Edmonton.
edmonton light pollution
talk about light pollution
Looking up, I could see more stars than I'd ever seen in the city (though it had nothing on the dark skies of Jasper).

Looking north I could see what appeared to be a low-lying cloud, stretched across the sky from west to east. Low and behold, it was the emerging aurora borealis. (Please excuse my awful point-and-shoot photography -- plus, my camera battery was drained within the first few minutes!)
edmonton aurora borealis
As I watched, the cloud lengthened and shortened and became a faint green colour. At times portions of it turned ninety degrees, like rotated vertical window blinds, and areas took turns lighting up brighter than the rest.
edmonton aurora borealis
Though they were faint and only very light green, the lights had me mesmerized for over an hour. As I watched, they became continuously more impressive, at one point dividing into three parallel curtains, one high overhead with the others closer to the horizon. What struck me most was how dynamic the light was, changing constantly.
edmonton aurora borealis
On that relatively warm night, watching this magical light show accompanied by a distant chorus of coyote howls from the surrounding fields, it took the realization that I'd have to be up at 4:15 am to tear me away.

On the drive back I snuck a couple last glances at the glowing northern sky before I was back in the city and any sign of the aurora had disappeared. Driving past St. Patrick's Day revellers leaving Whyte Avenue's bars, I realized how timely the green aurora borealis had been. I'm looking forward to their next appearance already!
Here's a photo the talented Jeff Wallace captured this same night -- check out his Instagram @wherezjeff for more awesome aurora borealis shots!

Have you seen the aurora borealis before?

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