Gaze in wonder as the shimmering waves of the aqsarniit* spill across the darkness

*Inuktitut for northern lights.

A dark, cold night on the tundra. The inky, endless black sky sparkles with millions of diamond-like stars. Slowly, a glow emerges from the horizon. It alternates from a subtle haze of green light to vivid, dancing waves that paint the heavens with shimmering flames. It pulsates and moves like an otherworldly living thing, a ghost from the past, enveloping the atmosphere. Hold your breath and gaze in awe at nature’s most spectacular light show: the aurora borealis, or northern lights.

About the Aurora Borealis
This magical-seeming phenomenon is the result of solar particles entering the earth’s atmosphere. It’s strongest along the aurora belt, which stretches across much of the Arctic – making Nunavut, and especially the more southern communities, a prime destination for viewing this natural wonder. Light pollution, a major barrier to viewing astronomical displays in southern parts of Canada, is rare in the sparsely-populated Arctic.

The lights are most visible during the coldest months of the year, when the skies are free of cloud cover. Fall and early spring provide ample light activity coupled with relatively mild temperatures, allowing for more comfortable viewing excursions. Various colours can be seen in different parts of the world, and in Nunavut, the aurora typically manifests in shades of green.

According to Inuit legend, the lights are ancestral spirits, playing soccer with the skull of a walrus.

Legends of the Northern Lights

Many folk tales have been spun to explain the aurora borealis. A common Inuit
lights are the spirits of ancestors, playing soccer in the sky with a walrus skull instead of a ball. To this day, some elders are hesitant to leave the house when the lights are active, having been told as children that if they weren’t home when the aurora came out, the spirits would carry them away. Local superstitions offer helpful ways to control the aurora borealis, as well: whistling or singing beneath the lights supposedly makes them more active, while rubbing one’s fingernails together will cause them to retreat.

Capturing the Lights

A reel of jaw-dropping photos showing the fiery, painted sky will make the ultimate souvenir of your time in Nunavut. In areas with significant aurora borealis activity, even a mobile phone camera will decently capture the scene. However, a digital SLR or even a smaller point-and-shoot camera with adjustable settings will greatly enhance the quality of your images. ISO (light sensitivity) should be dialed up to the 800 to 1200 range, and a fast aperture is recommended. Depending on the aurora activity, shutter speed should be between 3-5 seconds (for fairly vivid and active lights) to 20 seconds (to allow the camera to pick up a slower, more subtle glow). In every case, the most essential tool for taking a stunning, clear shot is a tripod or other camera stand. This will ensure that no movement or shaking interferes with the quality of your photos.

Planning an Aurora Experience

To ensure the best possible viewing of the northern lights, visitors can book an excursion with one of Nunavut’s many outfitters. After darkness has fallen, a guide will escort you away from the community to a remote spot, perfect for sitting in peaceful rapture as the breathtaking display spills across the sky.