Help me see the Northern Lights in Canada
October 10, 2021 12:47 PM   Subscribe

I will be in Ottowa, Canada at the beginning of February, and will have an extra 3-4 days to add to my trip. Since I'll already be north in the dark, cold winter, I thought it might be a good opportunity to see if I can cross an item off my bucket list and get my first view of the Northern Lights.

Based on my research it's a little unclear what's the best location to get to from Ottowa that has an infrastructure to see the lights. (My ideal would be to sleep in a glass dome under the sky and have more of a luxury experience, which you can do in Finland or Iceland, but I haven't been able to find in Canada. My Ottowa trip will be physically taxing and I would rather this part be on the more relaxing side.) I live on the West Coast of the U.S. so I am not opposed to flying significantly west if that's the best answer, since it will be "on the way home" kind of. My budget is open. Any ideas?
posted by Threeve to Travel & Transportation around Canada (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Even though Ottawa is pretty far north, it’s not far enough that you can consistently see the northern lights. Your best bet is to get out in the country where light pollution is lower, but even then you’d have to get pretty lucky and have perfect atmospheric conditions.

If you want to see the northern lights for certain, you have to fly somewhere further north, like up in the Northwest Territories. Not exactly on your way home. But on the other hand, up north there are certainly luxury stays you can book that are dedicated to the Northern Lights experience.
posted by mekily at 1:06 PM on October 10, 2021 [6 favorites]

Not gonna work sadly. There's a lot of Canada in between you and the kind of Northern Lights experience you crave. There is a lot of Northern Lights tourism infrastructure in the Yukon say, or Churchill MB for that matter, but these are both harder to get to from Ottawa than Anchorage is from Seattle.

Ottawa is also not that far north, it's just cold. Ottawa is at the same latitude as Lyon, France, and for that matter as Portland, Oregon. But you can skate on the Rideau Canal, weather permitting!
posted by goingonit at 1:43 PM on October 10, 2021 [8 favorites]

Re: Iceland, this Wikipedia entry on the 66th parallel gives you an idea where it sits in relation to where you'll be in Canada (i.e., not very close, way further south).
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 1:45 PM on October 10, 2021

This map might be enlightening for you on the not-very-northerliness of Ottowa (look over on the right side of the second map - as goingonit says, it's about equivalent to southern Europe). I live a good 10 degrees further north than Ottowa and I think the Norhern Lights have been faintly visible once in the 14 years I've lived here (not that I saw them, obviously I was lying on my sofa watching TV while they were doing their thing outside!)
posted by penguin pie at 2:09 PM on October 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

Ottawa is a nice city and I am inclined to believe that you will have a good time there, but as everybody else has pointed out, your odds of seeing the Aurora Borealis in Ottawa are very low, and fairly low even in any place conveniently reached from Ottawa.

If you're wondering why, or where you could travel to improve your odds, I suggest having a look at the Aurora Forecast page provided by the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Geophysical Institute. Look at the map displays, particularly the one centered around the north pole, if you want to get a good idea where auroral activity is concentrated. And even within the area of highest activity you still have to be watching at the right time and under the right weather conditions (terrestrial and geomagnetic) in order to experience a good auroral display.
posted by Nerd of the North at 2:11 PM on October 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Probably the closest to Ottawa you will get reliable Northern Lights, from a practical travel time perspective, is Iqaluit, which is three hours flight, basically straight north.

You might be able to see them faintly from somewhere in the countryside around Edmonton, which is sort of on your way home, but that's definitely not reliable, especially over just a few nights. This won't be the amazing image you are thinking of.

I would guess that only a fairly small percentage of Canadians have seen Northern Lights like you'd see in a photograph.
posted by ssg at 2:12 PM on October 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: BTW, if you live on the west coast of the USA and this is something you are determined to experience at some point in your life, I would suggest Fairbanks, Alaska as a destination (but as part of another trip..) By comparison it's relatively easily reachable from the west coast, has auroral displays during a fair portion of the year, and has an established aurora tourism industry that would support you in your efforts to see the lights and maybe offer experiences that pair well, such as hot springs or special accommodations.
posted by Nerd of the North at 2:19 PM on October 10, 2021 [14 favorites]

Your other option, if you really want to fly west, is to fly to Winnipeg and then north to Churchill. This would take longer than Iqaluit, I think, as you'll certainly have to connect somewhere between Winnipeg and home as well, so it would add up to a lot of hops. There's a train too, but it takes 48 hours each way.
posted by ssg at 2:21 PM on October 10, 2021

There's a subscription alert system via space weather alerts you could try subscribing too,

but I would probably just monitor the auroral oval page on from space weather on the left column

NOAA northern hemisphere forecast(unclear if this link updates)
posted by TheAdamist at 4:18 PM on October 10, 2021

Response by poster: Thank you! Sounds like the reason I didn't find any good options from Ottowa is that there are none. But Fairbanks is on the radar now and I really appreciate that! Totally open to making it a separate trip and Alaska is much closer than Iceland. Thanks for the help, smart MeFites.
posted by Threeve at 6:36 PM on October 10, 2021

I concur, you aren't going to see the northern lights in Ottawa (also, FYI note spelling), it's at about 45 degrees N, you need to be 60+ to have good odds. It's actually not absolutely impossible -- I've spent a lot of time there in late fall/winter over the last several years and there's often ~1 day a year where there's an article saying that they may be visible somewhere vaguely nearby (e.g. dec 10, 2020, I didn't see any though). You just can't plan around it and won't be likely to overlap with that, if it happens this year.

However, I will also add that in my experience it is an area where it's pretty doable to get away from light pollution. I haven't personally been to any places explicitly designed for this even, you can get really nice sky views at just random country roads 30 minutes out of the city. But, there are also some designated dark sky preserves within ~2 hours of Ottawa. I think that the Frontenac one is the closest. You may want to have a look at this map also to get a sense, that link should put the map in a position that is centered on Frontenac (which is in the grey/black notch north of Kingston) and also shows areas near Ottawa.
posted by advil at 7:41 AM on October 11, 2021 [1 favorite]

Sometimes you can see the Northern Lights from the Torrance Barrens Dark Sky Preserve (protected areas that reduce or eliminate light pollution) near Muskoka, Ontario. It's about a 5 hour drive from Ottawa. Even if you don't end up seeing the Northern Lights, it's a truly special experience seeing the night sky without light pollution (just make sure to check the clear sky chart).
posted by thebots at 8:53 PM on October 11, 2021

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