It’s a common misconception that the aurora, also known as the Northern Lights, is a winter phenomenon. People often envision that you need to be bundled up to the eye lids in Alaska or Iceland, in sub zero temperatures to see the natural beauty of the lights. The truth is, you can view the aurora even in the middle of summer, in Canada, aurora is visible all year!
The misconception that there is an ‘aurora season’ is the result of excellent tourism marketing by the northernmost areas. It is true, for many far north residents, there is a season, but it has nothing to do with Aurora ceasing. They are actually referring to their ‘season’ of darkness and refer to it as an aurora season because that’s the limited time of year seeing the northern lights is possible. When spring comes in the far north, the sun stays above the horizon for the summer and therefore there is no night, and no chance to see the lights. This is why it’s referred to as an ‘aurora season’ when in fact it’s only because in that specific location it isn’t visible due to daylight.
The important truth is: Aurora can happen ANY night of the year. Yes the aurora can go through times of higher activity than others but there is no time of year that it is impossible for the aurora to shine, it can happen at anytime as long as its dark enough to view it. Aurora is caused by our earths reaction to energy released by the sun, this doesn’t stop. Aurora happens all year.
It’s the hours of darkness that matter. As the seasons change, the hours of daylight continue to increase into summer, and decrease into winter. With more hours of darkness in the winter, chances of seeing the aurora is higher. This means winter is a better time to see the northern lights, but it’s important to know that it’s not the only time you can see this natural phenomenon.
In the summer the far north experiences the midnight sun, meaning it never gets dark enough to visibly see the aurora activity that continues to happen. Hence why you do not want to travel to far north in the summer if you want to experience a dark night sky. This makes geographic location one of the most important aspects to seeing the Northern Lights in the summer in Canada.
The aurora oval favours the North American side of the world, and therefore reaches further south. This allows the oval to overlap with areas that still have darkness for at least a few hours even during the longest days of summer. This delicate balances creates a special zone for viewing an impressive aurora display on a warm summer night. Its a unique combination of conditions that make it so special and much different than a winter show, its the experience that is truly memorable. Standing in light clothing and not bundled up makes staying out all night for aurora photography a lot more comfortable. A bonus is the fireflies often come out to add to the show!
Due to the importance of geographic location and the need for aurora activity, viewing the aurora in the summer is an extremely special experience. With just enough hours of darkness, and being located north enough to fall under the aurora oval, the Canadian Prairies are a true paradise for aurora enthusiasts. Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba have the advantage of having accessible dark sky rural locations with wide open views under the aurora oval, and are far enough south to eliminate the effects of the midnight sun. The best time of night to see a show during the peak of summer (late June) is from midnight-3am. The hours change as the nights begin to get longer during summer. The window of opportunity is small, but with active aurora it can make this short few hours of night truly magical.
Tips for Seeing the Northern Lights in the Summer In Canada:
• Check the Moon Phase; no moonlight is best – a full or close to full moon will make the few hours of darkness to bright to see the stars well, the aurora activity would have to be extremely strong to shine through the light. But it is still possible.
• Pick your location; rural areas in Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba provide dark skies. Finding a specific spot with a clear view to the North horizon is necessary.
• Check the Weather; a clear cloudless night is best, fog can also reduce visibility.
• Check the Aurora forecast; many apps and websites provide the aurora oval updates. Check the Space Weather Forecast online at https://www.swpc.noaa.gov/products/aurora-30-minute-forecast
• Timing; during the peak of summer the sunset can be close to 10pm, this changes on the specific date so check the sunset and sunrise times. The best viewing will take place at least a couple hours after sunset and a couple hours before sunrise.
• Viewing the night sky is the best when you haven’t looked at a bright light for 15-20 minutes. Our eyes take that long to adjust to the darkness and will improve your night vision.
I go into more detail into the basics of Capturing the Aurora here https://northernescapephotography.com/2019/11/09/aurora-hunting-101/
All opinions, tips and recommendations are based on personal experience as an aurora photographer based in Saskatchewan Canada. All photos are my own and must not be copied or reused without permission or license.