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Space weather symposium in YK could help dispel aurora myths

James Pugsley presents at the 2018 NWT Tourism conference in Yellowknife
James Pugsley presents at the 2018 NWT Tourism conference in Yellowknife. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

Yellowknife could hold a space weather symposium in 2020.

The event is an ambition of Astronomy North, a Northwest Territories non-profit devoted to Canada’s northern sky.

The organization fears some tourists will steer clear of Yellowknife as the sun enters a projected quieter period, mistakenly believing the chance of seeing aurora will diminish.

Astronomy North says its data actually suggests aurora levels are consistent above Yellowknife, regardless of the level of sunspot activity. A symposium, the group argues, will help ensure science augments the territory’s tourism industry.



James Pugsley, Astronomy North’s founder and longtime president, told delegates at last week’s NWT Tourism conference in Yellowknife: “The more we associate world-class science with this world-class aurora experience, the better.”

Tentatively scheduled for early August 2020, a space weather symposium would bring together local experts alongside specialists from the likes of the Canadian Space Agency, the United States’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Colorado’s Space Weather Prediction Center, Pugsley told Cabin Radio.

“The vision is to start having a very serious, scientific discussion about the aurora and all the great missions going on to study Earth’s magnetic field and the aurora itself,” said Pugsley.

“What better place to hold a conference, an event, dedicated to aurora science than Yellowknife? We’re now going to begin a dialogue with partners about inviting the world’s leading aurora scientists and space weather experts to Yellowknife. It’ll be an opportunity to learn from the experts about why we see these incredible displays so consistently.”



‘Consistently good’

The solar cycle is a period lasting around 11 years during which the sun’s activity increases and decreases according to a relatively predictable pattern.

Right now, the sun is believed to be heading toward a solar minimum – a period of very little activity resulting in fewer sunspots and solar flares, both of which are associated with the production of aurora in the night sky.

Tourists armed with that information might conclude the northern lights won’t be worth travelling to see for the next few years, until the sun gets back toward a maximum.

However, Pugsley says that would be a mistake – and the NWT’s tourism industry needs to make sure prospective visitors have the facts.

Yellowknife has a geomagnetic latitude of 68 degrees, slightly different to its geographic latitude of 62 degrees. Astronomy North says its data shows communities at this geomagnetic latitude continue to receive a consistent number of aurora displays, regardless of the solar cycle.

“The science actually shows that,” said Pugsley. “Regardless of whether it’s a period of heightened or low sunspot activity, auroras are still going to be visible at 68 degrees north, magnetic latitude. Auroras have been consistently good at every stage of the solar cycle at this latitude.”

Getting the message

Astronomy North’s data is in part derived from almost a decade of camera footage trained on the night sky above Yellowknife. Over the course of more than eight years’ footage, the organization claims, just a handful of clear nights in aurora season were devoid of a light show.

“Operators have to think about the perception of the marketplace,” said Pugsley.



“If travellers don’t really know the auroras are visible during solar minimum, and think the peak of the solar cycle is the best time to travel – this data helps to dispel that myth, or that philosophy.

“It shows that even with the ambient solar wind, a gentle stream of particles from the sun … that’s happening all the time and that’s why we are seeing the lights, regardless of whether there is increased solar activity or not.

“There is plenty of evidence online to show a lot of our target market still has this belief, that the peak is when you should travel. It’s about getting the message out.”