6 The Northern Lights

Canada is famous for its many natural wonders. These include the singing sands of Prince Edward Island (yes, they sing!), Ontario’s Niagara Falls (whose negative ions – I am sure you know – produce a feeling of happiness), and – of course – Canada’s very own Jurassic Park in Alberta. Other natural wonders include the mountains and waters of Banff National Park, the west’s Haida Gwai archipelago, the Bonnechere Caves in Ontario (home to half-a-billion-year-old fossils), and Iceberg Alley on the east coast, featuring 10,000-year-old floating icebergs. Although all of these wonders generate great interest around the world, it is Canada’s northern lights that are by far the country’s most timeless and beautiful treasure.

The northern lights, scientifically termed aurora borealis, are a stunning never-ending light show visible in the skies of northern Canada. Mostly observable in the dark winter months, this natural phenomenon lights up the night sky with vibrant colours. The interpretation of the lights has varied in history. Whereas the Europeans originally viewed the lights as a bad omen indicating an approaching war or famine, the indigenous people of northern Canada saw the different lights as spirits of their dead engaged in a friendly game of football (Gaskill, 2016). Other aboriginals living in the north believed the lights were a gateway to heaven or even the spirits of the animals that they had hunted (Gaskill, 2016; Northern Lights Centre, n.d.). Yet others feared the lights, believing they were capable of decapitating riders on dog sleds late at night (Yundt, 2013). The Babylonians who described the lights on their clay tablets back in 567 B.C. as a ‘red glow’ did not offer up an explanation of the unusual phenomenon at the time (Stephenson et al., 2004). But recordings of the northern lights date back as far as 30,000 years ago if the images on cave walls are to be believed (ibid). The aurora borealis, of course, predates humankind – having been around for millions of years before us (Eather, 1980). It is, in fact, timeless.

The magnificent lightshow of the aurora borealis differs nightly in its colourful display. As protons and electrons from the sun’s surface collide with the Earth’s magnetic field, they make their way into the Earth’s atmosphere (Emspak, 2014). The oxygen and nitrogen atoms in the atmosphere absorb the initial energy from the collision but soon release it back into the air – sending out light in the process. And so, an array of colour splashes the night sky. Oxygen atoms usually release a green light while nitrogen atoms give off more of a red/orange glow (Emspak, 2014). According to the Yukon’s Northern Lights Centre (n.d.), the most common colours on display are pale green and pink, although shades of yellow, red, blue, and violet are also visible at times. These lights can appear a number of ways, including as cascades of light, arcs of light, dancing curtains, and shooting rays. The best time to witness the Earth’s lightshow in Canada is around midnight in norther parts of the Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut. Although the lights occur year-round, they are cyclical in nature – peaking every eleven years. The next peak of light is expected in the year 2024 (Northern Lights Centre, n.d.).

Surprisingly, the beautiful and timeless displays of the aurora borealis which draw so many people to Canada are not unique to Earth. Scientists have found similar displays on Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and even Venus (Yundt, 2013). Even though the Northern Lights have been explained through scientific analysis, they remain magical and mystical in nature. The phenomenon continues to draw countless visitors to Canada’s north every year. With the additional adventure of dog sledding or snow shoeing to see the lights, the experience is indeed one of a kind.



Eather, R. (1980). Majestic lights: The Aurora in science, history, and the arts. Washington, DC: American Geophysical Union.

Emspak, J. (2014). Northern lights: 8 dazzling facts about auroras. Retrieved January 20, 2020 from https://www.livescience.com/48463-facts-about-northern-lights.html

Gaskill, M. (2016). Ten bright facts about the northern lights. Retrieved January 20, 2020 from https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/72350/10-bright-facts-about-northern-lights

Northern Lights Centre. (n.d.).Northern Lights. Retrieved January 21, 2020 from https://www.northernlightscentre.ca/northernlights.html

Stephenson, R., Willis, D., & Hallinan, T. (2004). The earliest datable observation of the aurora borealis. Astronomy & Geophysics, 45(6), 6.15-6.17.

Yundt, H. (2013). Fun Aurora Borealis facts. Retrieved January 21, 2020 from https://www.canadiangeographic.ca/article/fun-aurora-borealis-facts\


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