Yellowknife aurora chaser, photographer, and guide
 
 

MOON PHASES AND MONTHS TO VISIT

The mosquito vs. hoar frost conundrum, factoring in moon phases, your eyes at night, and a few words about your plans to see the aurora in June. 

 
 
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THE SUMMER AURORA DREAM

Let me break your heart right from the start here. Unfortunately, if you're planning to be here in the second half of May, June, or July, you really, really aren't likely to see the aurora because of our long daylight hours through the summer months.

Aurora season in Yellowknife is August to April. These are our safe zones. I've seen the aurora as early as the 22nd of July, and as late as the 11th of May - but it's a good idea to keep your visits from anytime in August all the way through to the first few days of May if your main focus is the northern lights.

Astronomy North has collected seven years of aurora viewing data, broken down monthly, year after year, on the number of nights the AuroraMax all sky camera has viewed the aurora. 

AUTUMN:

Warm, longer northern days make it more likely to combine the sunset and subsequently gorgeous twilight skies with the northern lights all in one. If you've ever dreamt of seeing the aurora dance while witnessing a lightning storm in the distance, this is the time of year for you. Reflections of the northern lights off the water will take your breath away before things begin to freeze up in November. We'll leave the parkas inside for these few months, but carry ample mosquito repellent for August and perhaps a few days in September.

August;  late evening sunsets will take us right into our aurora chasing hours which can present us with spectacular photography opportunities. The days are warm, the nights are beginning to cool down - even to 5ºC, and the skies very often clear - my favourite conditions. The last two years have given us more forest fire smoke to deal with because of British Columbia burning, and this can make reduce our sky clarity.   Of note:  particularly during the first half of August, it's likely our tour length may be reduced based on longer summer days. We may not depart until as late as 23:00, and return home between 2am - 4am, but we will ensure we take advantage of the unique night sky we do have this time of year!

August; late evening sunsets will take us right into our aurora chasing hours which can present us with spectacular photography opportunities. The days are warm, the nights are beginning to cool down - even to 5ºC, and the skies very often clear - my favourite conditions. The last two years have given us more forest fire smoke to deal with because of British Columbia burning, and this can make reduce our sky clarity.

Of note: particularly during the first half of August, it's likely our tour length may be reduced based on longer summer days. We may not depart until as late as 23:00, and return home between 2am - 4am, but we will ensure we take advantage of the unique night sky we do have this time of year!

September;  because the autumn equinox falls within this month, it's not uncommon to witness heightened aurora activity through September, and into October. The weather is generally quite favourable carrying over from August, although there will be cloudy nights, and we will need to chase clear skies. If someone tells you it's going to be 'warm' overnight this month, they're lying. Temperatures will hover around 0°C for much of the month with a high humidity. I usually feel colder in September than February because of this. Bring warmer clothes than you think you'll need.

September; because the autumn equinox falls within this month, it's not uncommon to witness heightened aurora activity through September, and into October. The weather is generally quite favourable carrying over from August, although there will be cloudy nights, and we will need to chase clear skies. If someone tells you it's going to be 'warm' overnight this month, they're lying. Temperatures will hover around 0°C for much of the month with a high humidity. I usually feel colder in September than February because of this. Bring warmer clothes than you think you'll need.

October;  the ultimate balance between typically  really  good auroral activity, and the beginning of winter. And freeze up around here does mean we're going to have some cloud this month - although your first week to two weeks are usually a safe bet that falls inline with September's tendencies. During the last half of October, lake effect cloud is something to be aware of, and often general forecasts do not account for this. What it means, is as colder air masses move over Great Slave Lake, it picks up warmer, moist air over the lake, forming broken or overcast mid-altitude cloud which can linger over Yellowknife for days at a time. So while the payoff can be great in October, be also prepared to spend some nights cosied up at your accommodation under cloud, but hopefully armed with candles, coffee, and a book.

October; the ultimate balance between typically really good auroral activity, and the beginning of winter. And freeze up around here does mean we're going to have some cloud this month - although your first week to two weeks are usually a safe bet that falls inline with September's tendencies.
During the last half of October, lake effect cloud is something to be aware of, and often general forecasts do not account for this. What it means, is as colder air masses move over Great Slave Lake, it picks up warmer, moist air over the lake, forming broken or overcast mid-altitude cloud which can linger over Yellowknife for days at a time. So while the payoff can be great in October, be also prepared to spend some nights cosied up at your accommodation under cloud, but hopefully armed with candles, coffee, and a book.

WINTER:

While there's certainly no question these months can bring us some challenging conditions, it's what being north of 60º is all about. These months will provide some of the greatest payoffs in terms of your experience. November and early December may mean longer drives chasing for the aurora in the way of searching out clear skies, but we'll find music you enjoy, and conversation that's inspiring while you stretch out and keep warm in my Transit. This to me, is what aurora chasing is all about, these are the nights that thrill me the most. And for those evenings where we may see the temperature drop to -40ºC, we'll keep you warm bundled up in Canada Goose gear, or inside the vehicle if you prefer - where you can take in the aurora through the wrap-around windows. There's nothing like being here in winter.

November;  potentially not as bad as you've probably heard, like in the 2013-2014 aurora season when November was the third clearest month (August-April). However, for the  first half of the month , we are usually still experiencing a lot of cloud cover and heavier snowfalls. If you have the freedom to come any time through the year, I would encourage you to re-think an early to mid-November visit.   Of note:  while I would  never  (in a million years) recommend gambling with just a one or two night stay up here seeking out an experience under the aurora, it's an especially bad idea this time of year because we may need to wait out some cloud. Give yourself an extra night or two, or three.

November; potentially not as bad as you've probably heard, like in the 2013-2014 aurora season when November was the third clearest month (August-April). However, for the first half of the month, we are usually still experiencing a lot of cloud cover and heavier snowfalls. If you have the freedom to come any time through the year, I would encourage you to re-think an early to mid-November visit.

Of note: while I would never (in a million years) recommend gambling with just a one or two night stay up here seeking out an experience under the aurora, it's an especially bad idea this time of year because we may need to wait out some cloud. Give yourself an extra night or two, or three.

December;  November was cold, until you're into December. But as colder nights return, so do the clear skies which once again give us better odds of seeing the lights. If Yellowknife has had a particularly cold beginning to winter, it's possible the ice roads will open up toward the end of the month, although January is a more sure bet for that.  Still some heavier fresh snow falls can sit on the trees creating a landscape of all white in the countryside, and if you’re lucky, some ice fog has moved through and coated every surface in little snowflakes and ice crystals, including your face.

December; November was cold, until you're into December. But as colder nights return, so do the clear skies which once again give us better odds of seeing the lights. If Yellowknife has had a particularly cold beginning to winter, it's possible the ice roads will open up toward the end of the month, although January is a more sure bet for that.
Still some heavier fresh snow falls can sit on the trees creating a landscape of all white in the countryside, and if you’re lucky, some ice fog has moved through and coated every surface in little snowflakes and ice crystals, including your face.

January;  the holidays have come and gone, and how many of you got goose down parkas for Christmas? Because you're going to need them. Just kidding, we'll get you set up with some, but this is the month to bundle up. Temperatures can be frigid, but wonderful opportunities to lay out on frozen lakes where the landscapes around us will be painted green from the aurora dancing the entire sky overhead will be plentiful.

January; the holidays have come and gone, and how many of you got goose down parkas for Christmas? Because you're going to need them. Just kidding, we'll get you set up with some, but this is the month to bundle up. Temperatures can be frigid, but wonderful opportunities to lay out on frozen lakes where the landscapes around us will be painted green from the aurora dancing the entire sky overhead will be plentiful.

SPRING(ISH):

Ahhh, March 21st, the first day of spring. Rejuvenation, rebirth, everything's blooming, all that stuff. Except March in Yellowknife has seen -35ºC, there's still ice on the lakes in May, and the winds aren't exactly 'warm' just yet, which makes spring in up here a little different. What isn't all that different is the way the days lengthen so quickly. Sunset stretches later into each evening, bringing back the possibility to view the aurora under a deep twilight coloured sky. Then, there's the excitement I personally feel this time of year - knowing the aurora is closing in on it's final days before giving way to bright summer nights where this far north, we won't see the lights back in the sky again until August.

 

February;  carrying right over from January, we can expect very similar conditions in terms of weather and temperatures. Although clear skies remain abundant, and still the nights will be very cold, warmer temperatures (around the -20ºC) can bring in occasional cloud. Few things rival the clear, still, nights enjoyed under great big skies on great big lakes.

February; carrying right over from January, we can expect very similar conditions in terms of weather and temperatures. Although clear skies remain abundant, and still the nights will be very cold, warmer temperatures (around the -20ºC) can bring in occasional cloud. Few things rival the clear, still, nights enjoyed under great big skies on great big lakes.

March;  beginning to exit the more harsh temperatures of the last few months, March is when the days flip to become longer than the nights. While some inconsistency in the weather can be expected as the seasons begin to shift, it's likely longer spells of clear nights do continue into April. In my experience, this time of year has brought some of the more dramatic displays of the northern lights that I recall. Also, through the last week of the month, it is possible to enjoy twilight and the aurora together should we be blessed with the right timing and right auroral activity which is something we will monitor with great eagerness. Overall, there's no question this is a great time to chase the aurora in Yellowknife!

March; beginning to exit the more harsh temperatures of the last few months, March is when the days flip to become longer than the nights. While some inconsistency in the weather can be expected as the seasons begin to shift, it's likely longer spells of clear nights do continue into April. In my experience, this time of year has brought some of the more dramatic displays of the northern lights that I recall. Also, through the last week of the month, it is possible to enjoy twilight and the aurora together should we be blessed with the right timing and right auroral activity which is something we will monitor with great eagerness. Overall, there's no question this is a great time to chase the aurora in Yellowknife!

April;  moving gently on from the spring equinox, the days have now become considerably longer than the darkness of the nights,   and warming days and nights are well on their way! Amongst all this good news, is that April usually gives us long strings of clear skies as well. Along with August, this is one of the best months to combine twilight skies into aurora viewing which obviously makes for exceptional photography under the right conditions.  Please note:  during the last few weeks of April, there is a probability that tour departure times may be later than usual because of the increased daylight hours. Expect departures as late as 23:00, with us still returning anywhere between 2am and 4am.

April; moving gently on from the spring equinox, the days have now become considerably longer than the darkness of the nights, and warming days and nights are well on their way! Amongst all this good news, is that April usually gives us long strings of clear skies as well. Along with August, this is one of the best months to combine twilight skies into aurora viewing which obviously makes for exceptional photography under the right conditions.
Please note: during the last few weeks of April, there is a probability that tour departure times may be later than usual because of the increased daylight hours. Expect departures as late as 23:00, with us still returning anywhere between 2am and 4am.

 

WAXING CRESCENTS,  WANING GIBBOUS',  FULL MOONS,  NEW MOONS

Moon phases 

 
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Each moon phase is going to give you a very unique experience, and while a full, or nearly full moon will become a significant source of light pollution - especially on a frozen lake covered in snow - it can make a faint aurora seem harder to see, but you are still going to see the aurora during those near full moon phases. I promise you it doesn't disappear. So while the moon doesn't directly affect the aurora borealis itself, it will have a strong influence on your experience - never better or worse, just different.

Some of my favourite nights here are when the moon rise or moon set is halfway through the night (around midnight, since we typically leave for tour somewhere around 21:00 and return around 3:00), and you really get to experience both having the moon in the sky but also the darkness of just pure starlight. When we get into a photography mindset, it's really something spectacular to me. As moon begins come close to kissing the horizon, our beautifully quirky trees will cast long shadows across untouched snow on frozen lakes, and the moonlight will be very gentle and warm.  

MOONRISE, MOONSET, AND MOON PHASE GUIDE FOR YELLOWKNIFE

Moon

During a crescent moon, half moon, or full moon - you'll certainly be able to take notice of the way it can illuminate our beautiful landscapes, and provide absolutely unique aurora portrait opportunities here. 


Moonless

If you're a stargazer, then a new moon is the phase for you. Before the aurora floods us with light pollution you'd be crazy to complain about, we'll have the milky way towering over our heads along with a galaxy or two we'll be able to spot through some astronomy binoculars. 

 
 
 
 

LET'S TALK COLOUR

What you can expect to see, to enjoy, and how it compares to the photographs that flood the internet.

 
 
 
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A BREATHTAKING EXPERIENCE

You're on the verge of booking your flight up into one of the most beautiful parts of Canada, you know you want to get into the countryside in a quiet, cosy environment (...no bias here), and you've wanted to see the northern lights for as long as you can remember, or for as long as hipster Instagram travel accounts have been posting oversaturated photos of the someone camping on a mountain peak underneath neon greens filling the sky, but what can you really expect? Is it as breathtaking in person as it looks in all the photos you've seen? 

IT'S A TRICKY THING TO EXPLAIN, SO YES AND NO, AND HERE'S WHY

Many of the great cameras today, partly because of the longer exposures required to photograph a night sky, are more sensitive to colour in dark environments than our eyes are. A faint-to-the-eye aurora can be quickly translated into more intense colours than we're able to perceive them as. This is of course true of the northern lights, and all night scenes, because of the way our eyes work with cones and rods. The cones are responsible for much of the colour we perceive during the day in brighter environments, but are much less sensitive to general brightness  than the rods are. So in dark environments, our rods, being so much more sensitive to light, allow us to continue to perceive, albeit with significantly less sensitivity specifically to colour.  Our rods also have far less sensitivity to long-wavelength light, which is why headlamps, iPhone star gazing apps etc. use the colour red - to help preserve our night vision - which takes somewhere in the range of 30 - 45 minutes to fully achieve.

Here is an unedited photograph I took of the aurora from my 5D Mark IV camera in September 2018. The ISO is 12,800, aperture f/2.8, and shutter speed 6 seconds at 15mm. The aurora in this moment was still weaker, as evidenced by having to use such a high ISO. There was no moon this night.

Here is an unedited photograph I took of the aurora from my 5D Mark IV camera in September 2018. The ISO is 12,800, aperture f/2.8, and shutter speed 6 seconds at 15mm. The aurora in this moment was still weaker, as evidenced by having to use such a high ISO. There was no moon this night.

This is, not perfect, but that same photograph edited much closer to how I remember actually viewing the aurora in real time with my naked eyes in that moment.  Very  faint greens were visible, and the reds and purples were much more just a different ‘hue’ than a distinctly identifiable colour.

This is, not perfect, but that same photograph edited much closer to how I remember actually viewing the aurora in real time with my naked eyes in that moment. Very faint greens were visible, and the reds and purples were much more just a different ‘hue’ than a distinctly identifiable colour.


The aurora in this moment is  very  active, very strong. From my 5D Mark IV, the settings are ISO 8000, aperture f/2.8, and a shutter speed of just 0.6 seconds at 15mm. The difference in camera settings to the example above demonstrate strongly the difference in the intensity of the aurora. There was no moon.

The aurora in this moment is very active, very strong. From my 5D Mark IV, the settings are ISO 8000, aperture f/2.8, and a shutter speed of just 0.6 seconds at 15mm. The difference in camera settings to the example above demonstrate strongly the difference in the intensity of the aurora. There was no moon.

To the naked eye, there was not much difference at all in the pinks and purples - in fact, the pinks at times appeared slightly more  intense  to the naked eye than in the photograph. The greens were still generally more muted with the eye, however the most intense areas & moments were distinguishably green.

To the naked eye, there was not much difference at all in the pinks and purples - in fact, the pinks at times appeared slightly more intense to the naked eye than in the photograph. The greens were still generally more muted with the eye, however the most intense areas & moments were distinguishably green.

It’s a lot to take in all at once, eye know.

 
 
 

COLOURING IN THE DETAILS

What all this means, is as you witness the aurora, especially as you're getting used to what to look for, your eyes will usually pick up the brightness of the colour green much more easily than it will the deeper magentas. All the colours of the aurora are visible to us, but everyone perceives differently and will have very unique experiences.
So to speak from my personal experience, there have been nights I've seen some reds. Purples and pinks; weekly, and green of course almost nightly. The northern lights can become so bright, they'll light up an entire landscape to the point, where on a moonless night, you'll be able to read a book under them. Just don't expect to see the atomic greens and neon pinks some tourism agencies like to push into print.

 
 
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