The northern lights are set to put on some dazzling shows over the next few months and an Alberta photographer has captured a preview of what’s to come.
This year Canadians from coast to coast have been looking up to find the night sky full of colours and, according to scientists, there will be more chances to see the natural phenomenon due to a cycle the sun is on.
Matt Melnyk has been chasing the northern lights and taking photos of the natural wonder for about 15 years.
“My interest in photography developed after becoming a pilot, so being able to see so many different meteorological phenomena, I started shooting all the different types of clouds and ended up being a storm chaser as well,” told CTVNews.ca in an interview on Monday.
Through connections from storm chasing, Melnyk and a few photographer friends asked a Calgary farmer on Nov. 5 if they could shoot photos on his property.
Then, at 10:30 p.m. local time on Sunday, Melnyk and his friends witnessed the dancing lights of the aurora borealis.
Over the past few months, Canadians from coast to coast have been looking up to find the night sky full of colours and Melnyk has some tips for anyone hoping to capture their own pictures.
HOW TO TAKE PHOTOS OF THE NORTHERN LIGHTS
Capturing the fast-moving lights requires some trial and error with settings, Melnyk said.
“I’m in live view (on the camera) so I can actually see what the photo should look like, based on the current settings I have dialled in,” he said.
Matt Melnyk took this photo on the property of a Calgary farmer on Nov. 5, 2023. (Contributed)
Melnyk shot the photos on Canon 5D Mark III and Canon 5D Mark IIII cameras.
“I usually keep my ISO locked in between 1,000 and 1,600 depending on the lens I’m using,” he said. “And if they’re extremely bright, I will just adjust my shutter between four and six seconds.”
The trick to capturing photos of the northern lights is using a tripod and allowing the shutter to stay open for a few seconds, absorbing the light from the auroras, Melnyk said.
“When you have the ISO that high and the shutter is wide open, it brings out the colours of the aurora borealis better than your eyes can see them,” he said.
Melnyk’s passion for photography turned into a hobby that takes him all over northwest Calgary, away from the light pollution and into the cold dark nights.
“There was that show that I saw last February and we had a location near Bragg Creek…Just the way the lights lit up the foreground with the snow, it was just so awesome,” he said.
But behind the scenes, Melnyk and his friend were battling the brutal cold jumping in and out of the car to warm up against the -20 C wind in February.
“It didn’t matter with my gloves, and the hand warmers weren’t enough,” he said. “I kept having to set my camera up, leave it on continuous shooting, go back and change the lens and then my camera was all frozen. That was one of my memorable moments for sure.”
In this photo captured by Matt Melnyk on a cold snowy Calgary night, the northern lights can be seen. (Contributed)
Even though Melnyk owns a lot of equipment, people with phones can sometimes capture the colours as well. Melnyk said his girlfriend took a few photos on her iPhone 12 using night mode and they look “pretty amazing.”
For amateur photographers and spectators, Melnyk advises people to head out of the city away from light pollution on a cloudless night.
“There’s no secret location, you just got to go somewhere dark and look up and you’ll see a good show for sure,” Melnyk said.
WHY WE CAN SEE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS MORE OFTEN
It’s predicted that the aurora borealis will show its colours more frequently over the next few years, Kathryn McWilliams, professor of physics and engineering physics at the University of Saskatchewan said.
This is because of the 11-year cycle the sun is on, and what happens to the energy inside the star is what causes active northern lights, McWilliams told CTVNews.ca in an interview.
“Imagine North is at the top and South is to the bottom of a magnet, and then over 11 years, it flips so that North is to the bottom and South is to the top,” she said. “So as it’s flipping, everything gets really active and really chaotic.”
When the energy is at its peak, is when the auroras will be the most common in Canada but even more southern parts of the world could catch a glimpse of colours in the night sky.
In this photo to the bottom right beside the trees, Matt Melnyk says the lights of Calgary can be seen. (Contributed by Matt Melnyk)
Currently, the sun is in Solar Cycle 25 and is expected to be at its peak in July 2025, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
“Solar Cycle 25 is forecast to be a fairly weak cycle, the same strength as cycle 24,” a forecast from September 2020 reads.
Even if the cycle is forecasting weak, McWilliams said, bigger space storms can happen as the sun nears its solar maximum.
“When a really big magnetic storm is taking place on Earth, you can see the aurora a lot further south, so you might see a big red, glowing aurora skies in Texas, for example,” McWilliams said.
While the sun’s magnetic energy is in this process of “flipping”, the solar wind picks up and breaks through the Earth’s magnetic shield forcing electrons and protons to collide with the gases of Earth’s upper atmosphere, the Canadian Space Agency website reads.
Earth’s magnetic field steers the particles towards the north and south poles creating two ovals above the North and South Magnetic Poles.
Even with scientists around the world studying the mysteries of space, McWilliams said it can be very difficult to predict the sun cycle and how active it will be and how it could impact Earth.
“Every cycle is different,” she said. “Since the early 2010s, the cycle that peaked around 2011-2012 was a pretty weak one, so it just depends on what the Sun is doing.”