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Scientists predict stellar year for viewing aurora in northwest B.C.

Professional photographer shares tips for capturing images of the northern lights
The northern lights are most visible when cloud coverage is low. (Camus photography)

The aurora borealis (northern lights) is a natural light display, visible at nighttime in the upper northern hemisphere. In Smithers, when the conditions are right, the northern lights can be observed as blue, red, yellow, green, and orange lights dancing across the dark sky.

“The aurora is one of timeliness and brightness,” explained Gladys Atrill, executive director of Tourism Smithers. “There is something compelling about northern lights. This activity in the sky that’s absolutely stunning, and most of us don’t really understand how it comes to be.”

The northern lights are influenced by solar wind, a flow of charged particles (protons and electrons) from the sun. When the wind approaches Earth, it interacts with the magnetosphere (a kind of bubble around the planet created by the magnetic field). Ions in the wind flow along the lines of the magnetic field colliding with oxygen and nitrogen atoms in Earth’s upper atmosphere and producing a spectacular display of light.

“It’s one more reason to get outside,” said Atrill. While driving home from work, Atrill has on occasion pulled over just to get out to see the “magical performance.”

The northern lights are most visible when solar winds are at their strongest. According to scientists at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), solar activity will likely increase throughout 2024.

One of the biggest astronomical predictors of northern lights visibility is sunspot activity. Sunspot activity follows a roughly 11-year cycle, which ranges from a period of minimal activity to a level of maximum activity back to minimal activity. The current cycle began in 2019 and sunspot activity is currently approximately double what scientists predicted it would be at this point in the cycle.

This means it should be a very good aurora-viewing year in northwest B.C.

“Every time there is a really great northern light showing one thing I have noticed is locals help locals, who help visitors, by posting photos and saying things online like ‘last night at 11 o’clock, or yesterday at one in the morning, here’s what I saw’,” said Atrill.

Posting images online can be a great way for aurora enthusiasts to connect, but capturing a crisp photo can be quite tricky.

“The first time you try to do it, it’s not going to be very good,” said Thomas Camus, owner of Camus Photography.

“We are living in a society where you want to do everything and you have the technology which is awesome, but you still have to do a bit of work to get to get a nice photo,” said Camus.

With practice and patience, you can eventually learn how to capture the aurora. Camus said slowing your camera’s shutter speed and using a tripod is the best way to go.

“You can have some pretty cool effects just with your shutter,” said Camus.

One of the most challenging aspects of photographing the northern lights is capturing its dancing, wavelike effect.

“Put your focus on manual search on your lens, because you need to have a good big aperture that you want to be focused on the sky.”

Aurora viewing conditions are most favourable when there is low cloud coverage, which tends to occur when the sky is darker and the weather is colder.

In addition to sharing photos, there are many online resources available to stay informed of visibility conditions, including aurora trackers and aurora enthusiast Facebook groups.

READ MORE: Smithers skies putting on a show lately

READ MORE: PHOTOS: Aurora Borealis light up night sky above B.C

The northern lights can appear in a wide array of colours, but green is often the most visible due to the contrast against the dark sky. (Camus photography)

About the Author: Morgan Powell, Local Journalism Initiative

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