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Amateur Astronomers Are Sharing the Brilliant Arctic Aurora With the World

Why Canada's Arctic has the world's best Northern Lights

YELLOWKNIFE, NWT: I would meet James in the evening, after dinner at around 9pm, when it was still light and felt more like six or seven. We would drive out somewhere as we talked, James taking me to see the old gold mines on the edge of town with their 'danger' and 'open pit' signs, discarded foreign materials—a piece of long black tubing here, a rusting metal stump there—in a dune-like landscape of rocky, grey rubble grown over with small trees, bushes and purple fireweed that slowly gave way to the solid rock of the Precambrian Canadian Shield. Or we would head out to a small lake surrounded by low trees, where in the winter, James said, the aurora would dance above them.

The cirrus clouds and smoky air lent a mottled purplish-blue to the sky as I took a photograph of James, standing solidly in a wide stance, with arms folded across his blue-striped polo shirt, and smiling. He had a kind face with dark hair and a small, neat beard and wore thin glasses that I could barely see from where I stood. In the picture the lines of cirrus almost mirrored the lake's ripples and the water took on a faint pinkish hue. Or we would go to a Tim Hortons drive-through for coffee, despite it being 10pm, just because, as James said, it's a Canadian institution.

Yellowknife is often described as the best place in the world to see the aurora

James Pugsley is an amateur astronomer, ex-journalist, government employee and president of Astronomy North, a volunteer organization for education and outreach about the northern skies. The far northern, or southern, sky can be very different to that shown in textbooks based on lower latitudes. The most obvious difference is the view of the Sun. High latitudes see dramatic seasonal effects like long, sometimes endless, summer days and dark winters. The view of the Moon and the stars is also different. Around the shoulders of the solstice, a month or so either side, sky watchers may be treated to a display of noctilucent clouds—bright blue wisps of extremely high-altitude ice crystals reflecting light from the newly set sun into the twilight sky. Then from September to May there is the aurora, and James will be out with his cameras.

A view of the Northern Lights. Photo: Melanie Windridge

James runs the AuroraMAX project, a collaboration between Eric Donovan's team at the University of Calgary, the Canadian Space Agency, the City of Yellowknife and the Astronomy North Society. It is an outreach initiative that aims to show the splendour of the northern lights, raise awareness of the science and also showcase Canada's scientific interest in the aurora and some of the leading projects like THEMIS. James gathers data to show the intensity and frequency of the northern lights and to demonstrate that they are not just an occasional thing for Yellowknifers. The aurora is happening almost every night.

'We have consistently seen substorm activity above Yellowknife whether there's an active sun or not.' James told me. Yellowknife is in a prime spot and is often described as the best place in the world to see the aurora. It is the unique combination of perfect magnetic latitude and arid climate. It sits right in the auroral zone in the centre of a continent and in the rain shadow of the Mackenzie Mountains to the west. Consequently it has mostly clear nights, perfect for aurora viewing.

Initially the aim of AuroraMAX was to connect a Canadian audience with what was going on in their back yard, but a side benefit is that they showcase their aurora to the world, broadcasting the display above Yellowknife via the Internet every night from September to May. The AuroraMAX website gets more than 13 million hits over the course of the winter, and on the Canadian Space Agency site the page that gets the most hits by a long way is the AuroraMAX page. People just love the aurora.

Excerpted from Aurora: In Search of the Northern Lights by Melanie Windridge. Copyright © 2016 by Melanie Windridge. Published by William Collins of HarperCollinsPublishers. All Rights Reserved.