Years ago I found the website SpaceWeather.com, and since then have made a yearly pilgrimage to the site in the fall and winter months. Having seen the aurora borealis probably about 7 or 8 times in my life already, it’s something I try to see whenever I get the chance, sort of like hooking up with an old friend after a long absence.
The first few times I saw it I was up in the Yukon Territory for a summer. Obviously up there it’s pretty easy to see (that is, when it’s not daylight for 24 hours a day, as it very nearly was for my first few months up there). I actually remember coming out of a bar late at night and wondering what that light was. Sure enough, looking up into the sky, I saw this big green-blue of the Northern Lights.
Years later I would actually see the Northern Lights on a cold winter evening in Chilliwack. Had I not seen them in the Yukon years before, I probably wouldn’t have realized what I was seeing. But up in the sky that night, while walking home from a friend’s house, I saw the very faint outline of the aurora again. The same thing happened years later while I was out for a run at UBC.
Flying back to Vancouver a few years ago from Ottawa I also saw the lights, this time from the plane. The lights were off in the cabin, and most people were sleeping or watching a movie. I was staring out the window next to me, looking North, and the whole horizon was lit up with the shimmer of the lights.
The last real time I saw them was back in November of 2003. I had been tracking updates on SpaceWeather.com and found out about a class X28 solar flare (the largest solar flare in modern history) that recently occurred. When the sun erupts a large flare, it ejects charged particles towards the earth. Depending on the orientation of the magnetic field lines, those particles will either make the aurora go into lower latitudes, or shrink the normal size of the aurora. In this case, the aurora was visible over most of North America, including the south western United States.
At around 3am I went up to my roof top patio with my friend Dustin and snapped this photo in Vancouver of the Northern Lights (this was before I had a real camera, unfortunately):
It looks like the Aurora gallery for this year is already open, so feel free to check it out from time to time.
Unfortunately we’re in a period of low sunspot activity, so the chances of seeing the aurora at lower latitudes this year aren’t as great as they were in 2003. But, it’s still quite possible. If you want to track the position and scope of the aurora at any time, head on over to the POES activity site. The activity level at the top measures the aurora and magnetic activity. Back in 2003, it was bouncing between 9 and 10 when I saw the aurora on my roof-top.