Friday April 18, 2014



QUESTION OF THE WEEK

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Nature’s light show

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Photo by Poul Jensen, courtesy of the UAF Geophysi

The aurora occurs in ring-shaped regions around the north and south geomagnetic poles. The auroras in the northern hemisphere are called the aurora borealis; in the southern hemisphere, they're known as aurora australis.

There are many high points to living in the north – for many, the all-natural light show of the aurora borealis is at the top of that list.

“It’s a natural wonder that people really are anxious to see when they travel north. If they don’t live in the North, it’s something that people really want to see,” explained Joyce Lee, manager of visitor services for Tourism Dawson Creek.

The aurora borealis is something that has been seen by those who live and travel in the Peace Region. While the Peace is not the only spot where the aurora can be seen, according to both the Dawson Creek and Fort St. John visitor centre, it is something that people often want to see for themselves.

“It’s a fairly common question among new residents and visitors alike. People are quite curious about them … there’s actually a lady here right now asking about the aurora borealis, she’s curious to see them, she’s never seen them before,” said Sandy Baker, customer service representative at the Fort St. John Visitor Centre.

The reason that people who live or travel within the North want to see the aurora borealis is because it can’t be seen in all areas of the world.

“The arctic circle is about the location where you are going to have the most likelihood of seeing the aurora. If you’re a long way south of the arctic circle, then you won’t see very often although you maybe see it sometimes, ” said Roger Smith, emeritus director of the Geophysical Institute.

However, if a person is in a location closer to the arctic circle, such as in the Peace Region, they have a better chance of seeing the beautiful lights.

Smith explained that the glow in the atmosphere known as the aurora is caused by activity of the sun that sends charged particles from the sun to earth, the process known as solar wind.

“The aurora is a glow in the atmosphere, it’s very high up. We don’t ever see it below 60 miles altitude. It’s between 60 miles and perhaps as high as 150. These charged particles, which are mostly protons and electrons, can enter the atmosphere and excite the glow in the upper part of the atmosphere above 60 miles,” said Smith.

However, knowing when is the best time to try and catch the glimpse of the aurora borealis can be tricky, as it can be unpredictable and depends largely on several factors.

“Although aurora exists the whole year round, you can’t see it when it’s daylight, so that means that the winter months are the best times to see it just because it’s dark when it occurs,” said Smith.

It’s more likely to see the aurora during colder temperatures such as -20 to -40 C because when the temperature is that cold it’s likely that the cloud cover will be minimal or non-existent, according to Smith.

The aurora is also more active at certain times because of the activity in the solar wind.

“The earth … has a magnetic field and the sun has a magnetic field. The relationship of the earth magnetic field to the sun will change the intensity of the activity too. The main source of the aurora’s activity is the sun itself,” said Smith.

For those hoping to get a look at nature’s beautiful lights, Smith recommends looking at the northern horizon where the aurora is typically first seen.

In order to see the lights properly, both visitor centers have suggestions on where people can go to see them.

“We were suggesting the look out, looking out of the Peace, the Peace Valley lookout … just not far out of Fort St. John on 100 Street because then you can get just a little bit away from the lights of city so you can see them better there,” she said.

“Get out of the city lights where you’re just under the sky with out any man-made lights,” agreed Lee.

During 2013, people will have an increase chance of seeing the aurora at a brighter level that normal.

“Every 11 years the aurora tends to get more intense and brighter. We call these times, times of solar maximum or sometimes it’s called sunspots maximum because although sunspots are not the cause of auroras, their activity follows the activity of the aurora. We’re coming up to a sunspot maximum,” explained Smith.

For those who live in the Peace, the aurora borealis may not be something that’s new, but it’s something that people still like to see.

“They’re spectacular … if I know there’s northern lights, I’ll bundle up make a special trip to go outside and check them out,” said Lee.


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