I often get asked, "What are the best places and times to see the northern lights?" There is no easy way to answer that question. So many factors come into play, many of them I don't even understand very well myself.
There's a green glow that the camera's shutter reveals, but to the naked eye, all you'll see is cloud. Photo taken at Paint Lake Provincial Campground.
I will confess; I have never been good at things like science and mathematics. I'm very much more at home as an artistic, expressive, creative person. I only have a basic understanding of the scientific reasons behind the northern lights. I know that they are caused by activity on the surface of the sun; electrons being blown out by the solar wind. I also know that the different colours are caused by different gases in the atmosphere. I know a few other things, but really, I have a pretty basic understanding of the phenomenon.
I know that living north of the 55th parallel puts me in a better spot for witnessing these shows than most of the country, simply due to how very far north we are. Even lower strength shows can usually be seen up here if we have a dark night and a clear sky.
Therein lies the most absolutely important part of the equation: a clear sky. If it's covered in clouds it doesn't matter how active the northern lights are up above, how bright, how colourful, how strong...none of it matters; if it's completely cloudy, you ain't gonna see nothin'.
if they aren't too thick, you can sometimes reveal a green glow coming from behind the clouds with the click of the camera's shutter, but you won't see anything with the naked eye.
That being said, sometimes a little bit of cloud can make for a very cool effect and adds dimension and depth to northern light photography. I've managed to take lots of photos that include some clouds in the sky, but the best are the ones that only have a little, especially if they are really thin clouds, that way the colours are a bit diffused and you can get some really pretty images.
September is traditionally an active time for the Aurora Borealis, and we get the added bonus of dark nights returning to the north. However, this year in particular it has also been extra cloudy, with most of the weekly forecasts showing cloud or rain pretty much every day, and even worse for us light chasers, every night. I've missed many shows this month already simply due to the cloud cover above. We've taken three drives out in the last week alone. Last night we drove all around looking for just a small clearing up above and I couldn't even find a star. I saw the moon pass momentarily through a small hole in the clouds and then get swallowed up in the next moment, just like everything else in the night sky.
These days we'll go out for a drive simply because it's a clear night. The last time that yielded some pretty great photos even though my apps had nothing exciting to report.
As long as you're up for anything, it's always worth a drive. Some nights, it's nothing more than a drive. Other nights, we've gone out when it's been cloudy only to have the sky clear as if by magic the moment we reach one of our tried-and-true locations, and we get treated to a magnificent show.
So, yes, clouds can completely thwart your plans for a great northern lights experience, but if there's just a touch, they can add to the experience just as well. So go out, look up, go for that drive. It's always worth it when you do get to see them dance.
Pic#1- There's something exciting going on behind those clouds, but we're missing most of it. Pic#2- sometimes just a little bit of cloud can make for a really great picture.