Northern Lights Edmonton – Viewing the Aurora Borealis

The Northern Lights are magical and those who live in Edmonton, Alberta do not need to travel far outside the city to see them. Canada’s northern latitude and low light pollution make it an ideal place for viewing the legendary aurora borealis. This natural phenomenon is somewhat unpredictable, but there are things you can do to increase your chances of successful aurora viewing. Here’s what you need to know to see and photograph the northern lights in Edmonton.

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Science Behind an Aurora

The colorful dancing lights of an aurora are created when charged particles from the sun become trapped in the earth’s magnetic field. This happens more commonly at the earth’s magnetic poles. The phenomenon is called aurora borealis in the northern hemisphere and aurora australis in the southern hemisphere. If you want to see the aurora borealis or northern lights, you will be more successful at northern latitudes inside the aurora oval. The auroral oval is basically a large ring above the earth’s geomagnetic north pole where auroral activity is greatest. Winter is the best season to see an aurora, due to clearer skies and longer, darker nights.

Related: If you like aurora viewing, consider an aurora tour in the Yukon – a place further inside the auroral oval. Read our post, Yukon Northern Lights – The 5 W’s.

Legends of the Lights

Seeing the dancing lights of an aurora is magical and it sparks the imagination. Indigenous people have many explanations for the miracle of the lights that dance in the sky. My favorite legend comes from the Southern Tutchone who live in the Canadian Yukon. They believe the lights are their ancestors dancing in the spirit world to let them know they are happy there. There are several Inuit legends about the lights. Some Inuit believe the lights are the spirits of their ancestors playing a game of soccer. Other Inuit believe the lights are fires lit by their ancestors to light the way for the souls of the dead. Similarly, the Vikings believed the dancing lights were reflections of the Valkyries’ armor that led spirits of warriors to Odin.

An image of the northern lights near Dawson City, Yukon in August.
An aurora shot is more interesting if you can put something in the foreground. Photo by Debbie Olsen.

Aurora Watch – Edmonton Northern Lights and Alberta-Wide

Aurora activity is a natural phenomenon, but there is science behind it. That makes it possible to predict when it is more likely to happen. One of the best websites to predict Edmonton northern lights is called Aurora Watch. The website provides a real-time monitor of geomagnetic activity in the Edmonton area and throughout other parts of Alberta. You can see the odds of aurora activity on any given night and view an aurora forecast. You can also sign up for a free email alert service that lets you know when there is a good probability of auroral activity. (Be aware that sometimes the emails are sent out in the middle of the night.)

An image of a person in a red jacket watching the northern lights in the Yukon.
Watching the northern lights dance across the sky is a mesmerizing experience. Photo by Greg Olsen.

Northern Lights Edmonton – Amazing Time Lapse Video

Check out this amazing time lapse video of the night sky and the northern lights by our friends at Dixon Pictures. They shot this on their family farm about 80 minutes drive northwest of Edmonton.

Chasing Starlight and Darkness – Alberta’s Dark Sky Preserves

You must get away from light pollution to see the stars and view an aurora. Getting outside the city is essential. Fortunately, there are five designated Dark Sky Preserves in Alberta. The Beaver Hills Dark Sky Preserve near Edmonton was the first and it includes Miquelon Lake Provincial ParkCooking Lake-Blackfoot Provincial Recreation Area and Elk Island National Park. Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, in southeastern Alberta and southwestern Saskatchewan is also a Dark Sky Preserve. Just east of Lac La Biche, Lakeland Provincial Park is Alberta’s newest dark sky preserve. The world’s largest dark sky preserve is Wood Buffalo National Park and the second largest is Jasper National Park.

Related: Check out this cool time lapse of all of Alberta’s dark sky preserves by astrophotographer Jack Fusco and adventure photographer Jeff Bartlett.

An image of a red and green aurora near Dawson City, Yukon in August.
Most auroras are green, but occasionally you will see a red aurora. I think the red in this photo might be a remnant of the sunset. Photo by Debbie Olsen

Northern Lights Edmonton – Where to See the Northern Lights

Dark skies are essential for the best stargazing and aurora viewing, so you have to get outside the city – far away from streetlights, neon signs and house lights. Some of the best northern lights viewing spots lie east of the City of Edmonton in the the Beaver Hills Dark Sky Preserve. Miquelon Lake Provincial Park, Cooking Lake-Blackfoot Provincial Recreation Area and Elk Island National Park are top spots close to the city that are inside the dark sky preserve. Elk Island National Park is a 30-minute drive east of Edmonton. Jasper National Park is about a four hour drive west of Edmonton and Fort McMurray is about a four-and-a-half hour drive north of Edmonton. Both are great spots for northern lights viewing. Barring that, just try to get out of the city to a place in the countryside far enough away from city lights and you’ll have better viewing.

How to Photograph the Northern Lights

It takes patience and skill to capture an aurora shot that pops. You also need to have some essential equipment. You need a camera with a manual setting, a tripod, a wide-angle lens and extra camera batteries. A red light headlamp that has a dimming feature can also be helpful when you are setting up. A wireless camera remote can help to avoid the blurring caused by camera shake. Here are the basics:  

  • Turn off the flash and set the camera and the lens to manual.
  • Set the F-stop on the lowest number you can.
  • Adjust the ISO to 1600 (as a starting point)
  • Set the shutter speed to 20 seconds (as a starting point)
  • Put your camera on the tripod. 
  • Focus the lens – set it to infinity and manually focus on the brightest star you can see. 
  • Take test shots and adjust the shutter speed and ISO until you get clear shots of the night sky. Wait for the aurora and adjust your settings again as necessary.

Related: If you love photography, you’ll enjoy our article Jasper in Winter – 12 Stunning Photos. Jasper National Park is the world’s second largest dark sky preserve and a great spot for night photography.

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