Viewing the Northern Lights: Churchill, Manitoba

Northern Lights Manitoba
During Frontiers North Adventures’ ‘Northern Lights, Winter Nights’ tour, the Tundra Buggy is converted into the Northern Lights Lounge with couches and wine and cheese service. Photo by Frontiers North Adventures
To see the best northern lights, you’ve got to hang out in the right circle.

The remote subarctic town of Churchill in the central Canadian province of Manitoba is considered one of the world’s best places for viewing northern lights because it’s directly under the auroral oval. This is the huge halo around the magnetic north pole where high-energy particles shooting from the sun collide with gases in the earth’s atmosphere. The collisions produce a sky show of dancing curtains and ribbons of luminescent green, red, and blue.

Adding to Churchill’s northern-lights allure is its reputation for clear night skies, a location far from light pollution, traveler accommodations, and accessibility by direct air and rail service from the provincial capital of Winnipeg.

Space scientists say we’ve entered a prime period for northern lights viewing. Solar activity, which rises and falls in 11-year cycles, is on the upswing, approaching the highest levels in a decade. Heightened solar activity generally means a greater intensity and frequency of northern lights, according to the Canadian Space Agency. The current cycle’s peak of activity, called the solar maximum, is expected to occur in 2012-2013.

Among organizations offering Churchill-based northern lights tours this February and March are full-service tour operator Frontiers North Adventures and the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, a scientific research outpost where travelers live and learn alongside working scientists probing the mysteries of the Far North.

‘Northern Lights & Winter Nights’

Frontiers North Adventures’ eight-day, seven-night ‘Northern Lights & Winter Nights’ program February 21–28 and March 22–29 begins with arctic-orientation activities in Winnipeg followed by a flight to Churchill on the western shore of the frozen Hudson Bay.

In preparation for the trip north, the group will take a private guided tour of the award-winning Manitoba Museum in Winnipeg — top-rated by the Michelin Green Guide — with a special focus on the province’s far north and its Inuit (Eskimo) heritage. They’ll view a sky show at the museum’s planetarium and learn tips for photographing the aurora borealis.

In Churchill, guests will take nightly trips out on the tundra to view the northern lights from one of Frontier North’s custom-built, all-terrain vehicles called a Tundra Buggy ®, which resembles a bus with high-rise tires. Designed for safe and ecologically sound viewing of Churchill’s famous fall polar bear migrations, the heated, enclosed vehicle with an open-air observation deck provides access to superb viewing locations well away from any artificial light, the company says. With the polar bears hunting seals way out on the Hudson Bay sea ice this time of year, it’s safe for aurora-stalking photographers to disembark from the Tundra Buggy and set up their tripods on the frozen ground.

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