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When, Where (& Tips) to View The Northern Lights Around Fort McMurray

By Sheron Meghjani | Jan 14, 2020 | Downtown

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You may be wondering how to watch for the northern lights before they disappear or without getting frostbite. This blog will help you watch the display during your stay in Fort McMurray (whether it’s for a weekend or a lifetime).

Chances are, watching the colours of the northern lights dance in a sky full of stars is probably on your bucket list. Our community is one heck of a place to tick this activity off the list. You will see that, as cold as it gets here, the north has its perks!

Fun fact: Did you know that the technical name for the Northern Lights is “aurora borealis”? They are considered one of the seven natural wonders of the world.

In this quick guide to making your northern lights dream come true, I’ll share what I’ve learned as a resident here. Namely:

1.Timing 2.Locations 3.Preparation Tips

At the end, I’ll share some of the science behind the aurora borealis. Let’s get started!...

The Best Time To Go

It is said that the best time to watch the northern lights is between late August until May, as the days are shorter in winter, therefore giving more time for lights to appear in the dark. There are apps and websites that can help you plan: These forecast the likelihood of a show and the best locations to see the aurora. Turning on push notifications and alerts on your phone is the best way to stay on top of celestial developments...

 

Here are my top 3 picks:

1.My Aurora Forecast - Aurora Alerts Northern Lights - app available on apple and android 2.Aurora Alerts - Northern Lights Forecast- app available on apple and android 3.Aurorawatch - website

 

The Best Locations

The lights are best seen outside the surrounding area of the city because light pollution, such as street lights and house lights, makes them appear less bright. Find a darker area or neighborhood with fewer homes and lots of space. Some of the best examples are lakes, playgrounds, parks located on the northern fringes of town. Here’s a list of my favourite spots:

 

Parson’s Creek Syncrude Athletic Park The Snye Abasand Thickwood Eagle Ridge

Getting out and about outside the city, while not as convenient, can be very rewarding. There are lots of service roads just off highway 63 that do not have streetlights.

Being part of the right Facebook groups and following pages like Where The Highway Ends can really help you fine tune your timing and location decisions.

Tip: Be Prepared

One of the things I’ve learned is the importance of being prepared. This is because of the last-minute nature of the northern lights. Perhaps you’ll get a notification on your phone, or you’ll glimpse the lights. Either way, you’ll need to move fast, so it’s a good idea to have some things packed in advance...

It can be pretty cold here in the middle of the night, so it is important to check you have fuel and clothing to stay warm. There’s no harm in taking loads of snacks and hot drinks as this might take a while.

Here are some photography tips from Fort McMurray Tourism to capture the moments and relive them.

  • Use an SLR camera with a wide angle lens
  • High speed film, 200 to 400 ISO
  • Use manual settings and turn off all automatic features
  • Use a tripod and cable release to prevent jarring
  • Vary exposures anywhere from 15 to 60 seconds
  • Don’t use filters
  • Carry spare batteries in a warm place as the cold can cause them to lose power

The Science Behind the Magical Lights

As magical as it looks and feels, there is science behind the northern lights. According to a report by University of Calgary “This natural display is mainly caused by high-energy electrons originating in the Sun entering the Earth’s atmosphere in narrow regions centered on the magnetic poles. These electrons collide with atmospheric atoms which are excited to higher energy levels. These excited atoms emit rapidly varying visible light in a curtain-like volume as they return to lower energy levels thereby creating the aurora. By simulating these light emissions along with the spatial and temporal distribution of the entering electrons, we are able to render the major visual aspects of the auroral displays.”

I hope this article proves helpful and good luck with your outing! In my experience, here are some “must haves”:

patience large double-double warm clothing winter shoes camera or phone extra batteries!

I have seen the northern lights without any planning whatsoever by just driving around town at night. If you’re new to town, also check out Fort McMurray Tourism. Guided tours are available and can be booked at NLOEA (Northern Lights Outdoor Excursions Alberta).

We hope you find our town as special as I do. If you are planning to stick around and maybe buy a home, check out our buyer page and let us know if you’d like help with your search!

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Sheron Meghjani

Sheron Meghjani is The A-Team's Unlicensed Assistant. She lives full time in Fort McMurray and loves the community. Sheron writes about the community and about her experiences here.

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