Random Aurora Borealis Spectation Opportunity
October 8, 2014 3:05 PM   Subscribe

What are the chances that on any given night between now and the end of the year I would be able to see the aurora borealis if I make it as far north as Winnipeg? By what percentage can I increase my chances by going further north?

I have nine unaccounted for vacation days that I need to spend before the end of the year. The Lady Fez wants to see the aurora borealis before karking it. For reasons of health, the time period between now and karking continues to dwindle faster than anyone would like. I think we're both willing to get into a car and drive north-ish for four and a half days if we can get a reasonable guarantee of seeing the northern lights.

Driving is a must as air travel is proscribed by doctors' orders and Amtrak isn't all that accommodating of liquid oxygen needs for long-haul travel. Buses are right out. Starting from the Omaha metro I make it we could conceivably get as far as Regina or Saskatoon and back without killing ourselves on the road. This also assumes passable roads, which is probably a bigger concern than I'm giving it right now. Altitude is also a mild concern--we'd need to keep it below 2500' above sea level generally although short jaunts above 5000' have been accomplished before.

So, friends to the north, how feasible is this flight of fancy?
posted by Fezboy! to Travel & Transportation around Tucson, AZ (13 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
You could try contacting these people to see if they can give advice. They seem to be the 'local' experts - http://www.aurora-service.org/
posted by roolya_boolya at 3:22 PM on October 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Is the train out? Winnipeg it's self has rare lights but a hour or two North would get your great views during a solar flare.

However Churchill Manitoba is about as far North as you can easily get and does Northern Light and Polar Bear tours. There is a VIA rail train, and they might be understanding of oxygen needs. There's no road to Churchill though.

On Googling it seems they might not allow enough oxygen though; http://m.viarail.ca/en/travel-information/special-needs/medical-needs
posted by Liger at 3:27 PM on October 8, 2014

The Alaskan Geophysical Institute has an aurora forecast that may be helpful. It has a Traveler's Guide to viewing the aurora.
posted by barchan at 3:45 PM on October 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

To maximize your chances of good viewing you want to reach the area known as the "auroral oval." It's not a region with exact fixed boundaries -- the extent of the oval can change based on solar conditions -- but its average boundary is pretty well known. If you can, shoot for a destination that lies within that oval.
posted by Nerd of the North at 3:48 PM on October 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I lived in Winnipeg for 3 years and never saw the Northern Lights (and I subscribed to a solar activity mailing list). BUT I didn't have a car so between light pollution and ill-placed clouds that did it for me. I did have friends who went camping in something like May and were able to see them, so the possibility is definitely there.

If you could get to Saskatoon then you would have a higher chance just because you were even further north. If you were able to make it out to Churchill even moreso. And, if you missed the Northern Lights you would at least be able to see the polar bears (which would be a nice consolation).
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 3:49 PM on October 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

My recommendation would be to stay in a resort in northern Saskatchewan. I have spent a few weekends at Elkridge Resort and loved my time out there. The roads to get there are good and you will be far enough away from major light pollution. It really is beautiful up there, especially in winter.

I would bet there are a number of great viewing spots nearby. You might even be able to ride a dogsled to get to a darker and more remote location for the best possible viewing experience.

I think the chances of seeing the northern lights fairly good, especially if you have a few nights to watch. That said, even if you don't see them you can still have a great experience viewing starry skies in the crisp northern air.
posted by axismundi at 4:00 PM on October 8, 2014

"What are the chances that on any given night between now and the end of the year I would be able to see the aurora borealis if I make it as far north as Winnipeg?"

I also lived in Winnipeg - 49.8994° N - for three years and the chances are damn near zero. I used to chase the aurora and though frequently you can see it, it is rarely more than a very dim glow. I lived in Petersburg AK - 56.8044° N - and it was almost a nightly occurance so I think that the likliehood of seeing the aurora increases in a not linear fashion as you go north.

It's a gamble though.

Were I you I would look for something else you want to see and if the aurora appears then it's a bonus.
posted by vapidave at 5:23 PM on October 8, 2014

I don't really have any specific advice but I'll note I lived in Saskatoon for over two years and didn't ever see the aurora. I did see it driving between Edmonon and Calgary and in Prince Albert National Park. You may need to be north and also to be out in the wilderness where there's no light pollution. PANP is several hours from Saskatoon and lovely so might be a good spot though I don't know what their off-season facilities are like.

And, ummm, I'm not sure what you mean by altitude changes? It's pretty flat. There is a hill (made from garbage) in Saskatoon and the river valleys.
posted by hydrobatidae at 6:15 PM on October 8, 2014

I'm very surprised to hear the Aurora in Petersburg, AK, described as "almost a nightly occurrence."
posted by Nerd of the North at 6:23 PM on October 8, 2014

I grew up in Winnipeg, and my family and I saw the northern lights from our backyard a couple of times per year. So it can be done, but it's by no means a daily occurrence, even during a solar maximum. Part of the problem, as has been mentioned above, is that light pollution can wash out all but the strongest displays, even for a non-huge city like Winnipeg.

You need to get somewhere as far north as you can get, and dark. On this map, you want somewhere that's either light grey or dark grey. If driving is the best option, then I would suggest Hecla Island, which has a small resort that you could stay at if camping isn't an option. You could also drive as far north as Thompson, MB on good (if remote) paved roads.

The train option to Churchill might be worth looking into. Canadian trains are operated by VIA Rail; here's their policy on supplemental oxygen tanks. It appears you're only allowed one tank (since extra tanks can't be checked), but you might want to call and confirm that directly.
posted by Johnny Assay at 9:41 PM on October 8, 2014

We're in a period of higher solar activity and nights are getting longer. I have an Android app, Aurora Notifier, that tells me when the KP index gets to 4, which means possible aurora, or above, which is a pretty good chance. It puts an icon on the notification bar, which means I'm likely to see it.
posted by theora55 at 9:59 PM on October 8, 2014

It's a crap shoot and depends as much on clouds as it does on actual solar/auroral activity. For what it's worth, I saw no auroras while staying in Fairbanks, AK, for 3 nights, and none in arctic Finland while staying 3 nights during the most recent solar maximum (though now they're saying the maximum was a weak one). In both places, we had arranged all the in-person/email/text aurora alerts possible. We were ultimately not alerted to any potential activity, but it wouldn't have mattered because there were too many clouds. It doesn't take that thick of a cloud layer to obscure aurora.
posted by unknowncommand at 10:12 PM on October 8, 2014

Response by poster: This is all really great information and I really appreciate the first-hand accounts about what you've seen (or not) and from what locations. That's what I was really looking for. I've got some communication going with VIA Rail. We could get by with one really big-assed tank for a few days straight and assuming we can find consistent electricity we can stretch that out a bit by using a concentrator at static locations. Seeing polar bears would be an awesome consolation prize. If they're like Amtrak though, you can only check a smaller number of cylinders and that isn't going to get us anywhere.

The Elkridge Resort looks amazing and they make a point of mentioning their accessibility accommodations which racks up a great many points in their favor.

We've had a nice chat about the information in this thread over dinner last night and again this morning. It's going to be a crap shoot regardless, but the alternate diversions mentioned make losing out on the aurora more palatable. Even if we end up sitting at home and staring at one another these nine days, we'll have these beautiful dreams to talk about and that, alone, has been really nice.
posted by Fezboy! at 9:31 AM on October 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

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