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Offer year round splendour
By Peter McMahon

Tidal waves of aurora crash overhead, as if we’re standing at the bottom of a sea of light, here on the salt plains of Wood Buffalo National Park. It’s midnight on a warm Northwest Territories evening in September, as a dim fountain of white turns into a purple-green arc stretching from the eastern horizon all the way to the west.

“This is by far the best I’ve ever seen,” says Amy Lusk. A resident of nearby Fort Smith, she’s out here on the salt plains with some friends after learning online of a possible solar storm tonight. “It’s like a cosmic gymnast twirling her ribbons across the sky,” she continues, noting that she’s seen the aurora throughout the Rockies but never with this much movement.

Last year, Wood Buffalo became the largest of the world’s 40 dark-sky preserves, “astronomy parks” that defend the night from urban light pollution. The park — already a UNESCO World Heritage site — is large enough to swallow Switzerland, or Saturn’s moon Mimas.

Around 1 am, the purple-green arc of light lets loose into a full-out all-sky aurora, like a projection on a great IMAX screen of nature.

“Awesome,” says Lusk, with no words left. Here in total darkness — an hour from Fort Smith (pop. 2,496) — we see the full glory of the Northern Lights: every wisp, strand, curve and filament… not to mention the sparkling river of the Milky Way beyond.

The grandness of this experience isn’t lost on the folks at Parks Canada, who partnered with the local astronomy club for their dark sky designation from the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. Through this partnership, the town holds an annual astronomy festival (August 22-24 this year) – something cities of 50,000 struggle to do.

What’s more, the Wood Buffalo main office recently took ownership of two 30-seat digital planetariums, able to rocket audience members off the Earth, orbiting around planets, and flying through dense spiral arms of whole galaxies. The portable domes are outfitted to travel between the theatre at Wood Buffalo’s interpretation centre in Fort Smith and remote locations across the NWT, as well as being able to bring the park’s dark skies to larger centres like Yellowknife and Fort McMurray.

Such science-centre-level experiences, based out of a town that only has three restaurants (four in the summer) are a sign of a larger trend across the NWT: While traditional tourist draws like fishing are dwindling in their appeal, night-sky-based tourism has roared to life, rising 50 per cent in the last year alone. Now, more and more people are starting to realize what the astro-nerds have been saying for years, space tourism is the next big thing in Canada’s North.

James Pugsley drives down 50th Avenue on the way to his part-time gig… as a lighthouse keeper in the largest town in the territory. The lighthouse isn’t a beacon on the shores of Great Slave Lake, though; it’s on the top of a sushi restaurant in downtown Yellowknife. A brainchild of Pugsley’s, the Northern Lighthouse project is the latest way the NWT is capitalizing on the surge of Northern Lights-based tourism and distinguishing itself as the “aurora capital of the world,” a designation backed-up these days by scientific data and a constant stream of packed hotels.

With the help of local and territorial sponsors, Pugsley’s non-profit group, Astronomy North, built five metre-high model lighthouses that glow different colours according to the Northern Lights forecast for the coming 24 hours: blue for periods of relative auroral calm, green for the likelihood of an average evening of Northern Lights, and red for a chance of geomagnetic storms that could trigger vibrant multicoloured displays across the sky.

“It’s a high-traffic area here,” says Pugsley as he aims a specialized remote-control at the ‘lighthouse’ on the roof of Sushi North restaurant to change the beacon from flashing green to flashing red. “At the very least, we’re pretty much reaching the entire community that craves sushi.”

You could say this is the lowest-tech space “app” ever built: Pugsley and a series of volunteer Northern Lighthouse Keepers as young as age nine drive, walk or take public transit to one of five locations around town to flip each Lighthouse from one colour to another every time that ‘space weather’ from the Sun headed towards Earth heralds a possible change in Northern Lights activity.

“Lots of people stop to photograph them,” Pugsley says. “I’ve gone up to change a light and watched a group of visitors jump up and down with excitement. It’s been a dramatic way to teach locals and tourists about what’s in store for them in the sky each night.”

For ‘Version 2.0’ of the project, Pugsley says he’s aiming to have the lighthouses update remotely from a web-based alert system. Such a system would make the lighting changes more accurate and allow additional sets of lighthouses in Yellowknife and other northern communities to synchronize their beacons (there’ve already been requests for lighthouses in several other NWT communities.)

But perhaps the most important development in the NWT tourism trade is something long-time connoisseurs have suspected for decades: That the concept that aurora activity “peaking” every 11 years-or-so is a fallacy in the North. For centuries, scientists have noted that the number of sunspots— “energy volcanoes” that spew charged particles into space in the form of solar flares — on the surface of the Sun is greatest every 11-years (give or-take-a-year). During this peak, the auroal-oval — a halo of Northern Lights that hangs over the North Pole tilted slightly towards Canada and away from Europe—can extend from the North down to Edmonton, sometimes Toronto, and in very rare cases, Miami. Because of this phenomenon, tour operators and marketers have long assumed that the best time to view the aurora in the best place on Earth was during this once-every-11-year “Solar Max.” That was, until researchers with the University of Calgary and the Canadian Space Agency joined forces with Pugsley and his Astronomy North team to analyze three years of data from a series of sensors and cameras that had been placed around the Yellowknife area.

After looking through thousands of images and 678 time-lapse videos, they found that in the North there effectively is no “maximum” — the Northern Lights look the same month-over month, year-over year. According to data from the CSA/U Calgary-funded Aurora MAX cameras, out of 559 nights that were clear enough to see auroras from 2010-2013, auroras were spotted above Yellowknife on 556 of those nights.

The AuroraMAX Project, in particular, is providing new evidence that strongly supports the territory’s claim.“We’re thrilled to provide this data to the people of the Northwest Territories,” says U Calgary physicist Eric Donovan, one of the world’s top aurora researchers. “This is an outstanding example of how scientific research is supporting tourism in Canada.”

The scientific evidence is vindication for what some tour operators say they’ve known all along.

“In 22 years, I’ve never noticed a difference,” says internationally renowned aurora photographer and videographer Yuichi Takasaka. Since 1992, Takasaka has led Japanese travellers on photography tours of the Yellowknife area in a career that’s spanned two solar cycles.

“If you take a look at my photos over the last 10 years of the current solar cycle, there’s no change at all in the quality of auroras,” he says, scrolling though screen-after screen of his online portfolio from 2002-2014.

We’re outside now with Yuichi’s latest tour group, waiting for the sky to darken enough for the chance to photograph an aurora. Suddenly, the sky ignites with a grand orchestration of green and red. So far, the awed silence of the night’s reward is broken only by the random clicks of shutters opening and closing at 1-20-second intervals.

“Sugoi!” says one tour member several times with giddy enthusiasm, her head turned skyward, transfixed on the aurora. “That means, ‘Great!’” says Takasaka.

It’s at this point that I realize that we are literally looking at a piece of our Sun — a nuclear furnace more than a million times the size of our planet — reaching out across the Solar System to tickle the Earth’s atmosphere.

For tourists in search of the perfect place and time for a cosmic adventure, who could ask for anything more?

Peter McMahon has written space articles for Canadian Geographic, the CAA, Air Canada’s enRoute, Frommer’s Travel, and SkyNews: The Canadian Magazine of Astronomy & Stargazing, where he is a contributing editor. For more on the Northern Lighthouse project, aurora-based activities in Yellowknife and Wood Buffalo, as well as a gallery of aurora photos spanning more than a decade, check out WildernessAstronomy.com