Catching a Glimpse of the Northern Lights

The northern lights are a spectacular natural phenomenon, with the infuriating feature of being wildly rare or exceedingly commonplace, depending on where you live. Here in southern Ontario, they are the former. Until last week, I’d never properly seen an aurora, but on a visit to Killarney Provincial Park on July 7, 2022, I was finally lucky enough to catch them in action. Killarney has reasonably dark skies compared to much of the southern part of the province, and the Sun, helpfully, is approaching solar maximum in the next few years, meaning it is more active now than it has been for a decade, giving off more of the flares and radiation that can set off cascades of auroral lights.

Below, you’ll find a series of images taken over the course of about 40 minutes, showing the whole progression. It begins with sunset, after which a faint arcing green glow gives the first hints of what is to come. By the midpoint, the glow gains structure, with full-scale waves and pillars recognizable. The display peaks in the fourth image from the end, and in the final image, the lights again fade to a dim glow.

One thing to keep in mind when aurora hunting yourself is that cameras (with long exposure) can see the colours better than human eyes. In the photos below, the purple appeared white to my eyes, and the green was paler. Take a look:

The same auroral display I watched was captured on camera as far south as Guelph, Ontario, and elsewhere in the province and across the country at similar latitudes:

In the tweets below, Harlan Thomas gives a more detailed explanation of exactly how the solar storm, which had passed its prime by the time the sun set, still managed to put on such a spectacular show.

There are various apps and websites available to predict the chances of catching an aurora based on solar activity. The one I used was, but the northern lights are notoriously hard to predict, so take the results with a grain of salt, and be ready for surprises!

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