Article | Canadian High Arctic and Greenland

Here’s Why the Aurora Borealis Will Leave Your Heart Glowing

On an Arctic expedition, you can hike stunning landscapes, see iconic animals, sample regional delicacies, swap stories with friendly locals, and get up close to famous places. But there’s one sight that will blow your mind, despite remaining just out of arm’s reach: the silent, spooky, ethereal Northern Lights.
Aurora borealis northern lights

© Dennis Minty

The Northern Lights, or aurora borealis, occur when supercharged solar particles interact with our planet’s magnetic field as much as 400 kilometres above the Earth. Eerie green or pink ribbons of light emerge, hovering, undulating, and sometimes even ricocheting across the night sky. Though auroral displays may very rarely appear at temperate latitudes, they’re most vivid and frequent in the polar regions.

Unsurprisingly, the Northern Lights have for eons been the stuff of Arctic lore. According to stories shared by Inuit cultural educators who travel with Adventure Canada, the lights are said to represent the spirits of departed loved ones, joyfully playing ball with a walrus skull. Other tellings reverse it: the players are walruses, and the skull is human. Still other teachings say that if you whistle, the lights will come closer—but beware! If they come too close, they may snatch you into the sky.

Heart of the Arctic Northern lights

© Lee Narraway

In recent decades, Northern Lights viewing has become a multi-million-dollar tourism industry. Each winter, tens of thousands of “aurora hunters,” especially from China and Japan, flock to places like Iceland, Norway, Alaska, and the Northwest Territories in Canada, scanning the frosty sky in hopes of being graced by a light show. The biggest challenge they encounter is escaping big-city lights—which, for Adventure Canada, is our specialty.

Indeed, aurora borealis viewing is it a potential highlight on our September or October journeys, when the midnight sun of summer is coming to a close. Of course, the aurora’s unpredictability is part of its appeal. Sometimes we’ll be lucky and get a show on the very first evening, interrupting our scheduled entertainment and sending everyone flocking outside. Other times, the lights will remain elusive, or will only flare up in the wee hours of the night.

Northern lights greenland

© Scott Forsyth

To get the most of the lights, head for a dark place on the ship, especially the top deck. There, you’ll have a view of the full sweep of the sky, with minimal interference from electric lights. Dress extra warm and bring a mug of coffee or cocoa, to help prolong your enjoyment of the spectacle. Better yet, bring a camera with a tripod and a slow shutter speed to capture the phenomena for posterity. (Indeed, it’s often easier to see the lights’ vibrant colours in photos than with the naked eye.) It’s an experience that’s sure to light up your life!

About the Author

Aaron Spitzer

Aaron Spitzer

Historian, Political Scientist, Journalist

For more than twenty years, Aaron has obsessively explored, studied, documented—and yammered about—the world’s polar places.

For a decade he ran Up Here, the journal of Canada’s north, which in 2010 was named the country’s best magazine. Before that, Aaron edited Canada’s northernmost paper (Nunatsiaq News), the world’s southernmost paper (Antarctic Sun), and the highest-circulation paper in the Alaskan “Bush” (Tundra Drums).

Aaron recently left Arctic journalism for Arctic academia. He earned a master’s degree in Northern Studies at the University of Alaska in 2015, and is now working on his Ph.D. at the University of Bergen, Norway, where he examines the opportunities and challenges of Indigenous governance in the circumpolar world.