Dancing in the dark

Aurora borealis (Photo by Esme Batten)

Aurora borealis (Photo by Esme Batten)

By Esme Batten, program director – midwestern Ontario, NCC

When I would hear about the aurora borealis, I always imagined seeing it in northern Canada or on a trip abroad to somewhere like Iceland or Finland. I never imagined that I would have the privilege of seeing it here at home on the Saugeen Bruce Peninsula in southern Ontario.

Shimmering aurora borealis, or aurora australis in the southern hemisphere, are caused by activity on the sun. A specific type of solar storm, called coronal mass ejections (CME), emits electrified gas and particles into space. When these charged particles reach and enter Earth’s magnetic field, typically three days after the CME event, this is when we see the aurora. Due to the shape of the Earth’s magnetosphere, or system of magnetic fields, some of the charged particles that make it through the magnetic field are directed to the poles down magnetic field lines. This is why we often see the lights at the poles, where these charged particles enter our atmosphere.

When there are particularly strong solar storms, we start to see the  lights at lower latitudes. When these charged particles interact with gases in the atmosphere, they produce differently coloured lights in the sky depending on the altitude where the particles collide. Green light is produced when the particles mix with oxygen at lower altitudes, and red at higher altitudes. Pink and red occur at low altitudes when particles collide with nitrogen, and hydrogen and helium shine purple and blue. In late March, I was watching the aurora forecasts released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to see if I had a chance to see the aurora at home.

Since falling in love with astrophotography in 2019, I have had several opportunities to capture the movement of the aurora as a faint glow along the horizon, but these  forecasts were predicting stronger storms than I had ever witnessed. Driving home with my partner that evening, we started to see the aurora before the skies were fully dark. My excitement was building. I rushed home to grab my camera gear and threw on some warm clothes before running out the door. I had been dreaming of shooting the stars in a cave along Georgian Bay, and knew that I needed to shoot the aurora there.

I rushed along the Bruce Trail to the shoreline, dodging icy patches under the light of my headlamp and the stars. Once I reached the cave, I took a minute to turn  off my headlamp, and I closed my eyes to let them adjust to the dark. When I opened them, I could not believe  what I was seeing. The lights were dancing all around and above me with vibrant greens not typically seen this far south. Usually, the lights look like faint grey bars moving along the horizon, and colours can only be seen through a longer exposure image captured with a camera. I laughed hysterically in excitement and awe at nature’s beauty while I set up my camera. A friend joined me and we sat for hours, often just looking up at the sky without words. When I finally made it to bed around 4 a.m., the lights were still dancing. It still doesn’t feel real.

We are likely to experience increased solar activity with more frequent and intense solar storms until mid 2025, meaning that the aurora will become more common. So, keep your eyes to the north in the coming months and hopefully you will also get to experience the majesty of the aurora.

This story originally appeared in the summer 2023 issue of the Nature Conservancy of Canada Magazine. To learn more about how you can receive the magazine, click here.

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