Northern Lights: How to see aurora borealis in Churchill, Manitoba
There are no roads into Churchill, Manitoba. And it’s this remoteness that makes it one of the best places in the world to see aurora borealis.
With its green glow and unpredictable nature, aurora borealis has long bewitched travellers. It’s the natural phenomenon that fires the night sky: bringing mystery, fuelling myth, and adding magic to the depths of winter.
For many travellers, seeing the northern lights is a bucket list item. However, like a free spirit, the aurora tends to show up when it likes, for as long as it likes, and disappears just as quickly.
Wanting to increase my chances, I travel to Churchill, Manitoba in northern Canada, where aurora activity occurs on average 300 nights a year. And luckily, the aurora arrives as if on cue.
No matter how many images you’ve seen, nothing prepares you for the lights in real life. Like a human compass, when they appear all eyes in town compulsively turn north, where brushstrokes of emerald light spill and shapeshift across the horizon. Not only does the aurora take your breath away, it ignites a sense of childhood wonder, leaving all who witness it humbled in its grace.
Although a transient population of beluga whales splash in the Churchill River during summer and polar bears roam the outskirts during autumn, it is winter when the northern lights take centre stage in Churchill. While aurora activity can be spotted almost year-round, the main season runs from February to March.
While mystery surrounds the lights, science has helped us better understand them. An aurora occurs when solar particles collide with gases like oxygen and nitrogen in the earth’s upper atmosphere, causing a flurry of geomagnetic activity that emits light.
Scientists measure the strength of this activity using the KP Index. In general, the higher the KP number, the stronger the chance of seeing an aurora.
However, Churchill’s unique position directly under the Auroral Oval means you only need a KP index of 1 to be able to see the aurora; making it one of the best places in the world to see the northern lights.
The town’s remote location also makes it special. Home to under a thousand people, Churchill is only accessible by plane or train, meaning there is little light pollution. And unlike other aurora hot spots around the globe, Churchill’s position on the shores of the frozen Hudson Bay means it is not as susceptible to heavy coastal weather fronts that bring cloud cover, resulting in clear skies.
For travellers, alongside daytime activities like snowshoeing and sled dogging, a huge part of Churchill’s appeal is the innovative ways you can experience the evening aurora; a series of single and multi-day tours that not only get visitors off the beaten track, but offer them experiences not available elsewhere.
One of the most innovative ways to see the aurora is Frontiers North Adventures culinary-themed tour. Aboard the iconic Tundra Buggy, guests are driven across the frozen Churchill River to Dan’s Diner, the world’s most remote pop-up restaurant. The dining hall set up in the wilderness offers panoramic views, rooftop skylights, and dishes like Arctic Char, part of an unforgettable multi-course meal featuring world-class cuisine, all while enjoying the aurora sparkles above.
Alternatively, those with just an appetite for the lights can visit their Thanadelthur Lounge via the Tundra Buggy, climbing out onto the frozen tundra for a look at the wild night sky.
One of the biggest attractions for visitors is photographing the northern lights, but it’s a trickier task than can be imagined. Most guides will help you get the best from your camera, but specialist photography tours are available. Nanuk Operations runs nightly photography tours from the comfort of a heated yurt in the boreal forest, while Natural Habitat Adventures offers specialised multi-day small group photo tours including visits to the popular Aurora Domes, an incredible space, allowing you full view of the aurora in warm comfort, well away from any artificial light.
Along with the Aurora Domes, vessels like the Aurora Pod, a stylish heated lounge parked on the tundra, are just some of the innovative structures designed for experiencing the northern lights in comfort and warmth.
Other options for viewing the lights have their own quirky appeal, including the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. Used as a suborbital rocket launch site until the 1970s, the centre now offers aurora experiences alongside working scientists. When the aurora arrives, all lights in the centre are switched off to limit light pollution and guests leave their dorms to admire the aurora from the heated rooftop domes.
But the magic of the lights is that they’ll arrive when you least expect – in my case, it was usually just as I was getting into bed. Throwing warm clothes over my pyjamas, I join a handful of hotel guests gathered outside.
Above, waves of light stream across the sky. The aurora trembles as it builds to a crescendo, as if directed by some unseen tenor. With a sudden throb of jade light, it stretches like the wings of a bird, and an exploding coronial arc engulfs the sky.
It’s a moment of Churchill magic glimpsed by few, but etched into our hearts forever.
Churchill, Manitoba, is one of the best places in the world to see aurora borealis. Visit in February or March for the best chance to see the natural wonder in all its glory – but the Northern Lights are visible 300 days a year from this remote town lying beneath the Aurora Oval.