Around 9 p.m. on the night of February 19, photographer Jeff Adams headed out to Gull Lake, Alta. in search of the aurora borealis—and boy, did he find it. Sitting on the frozen lake with his camera, he captured the northern lights dancing across the sky, a phenomenon he’s been photographing since 2015.
“It started about six years ago,” he says. “I was coming home from work and as I was driving, the sky kept getting brighter and brighter and brighter. So, I pulled over on the side of the road about three o’clock in the morning and I was just mesmerized by how these lights were dancing in the sky.”
Adams, who works as a long-haul trucker, is an avid storm chaser, and has been photographing summer thunderstorms for the past 15 years—narrowly missing his share of lightning strikes. But at the time, he did little fall and winter photography. Watching the northern lights that night convinced him to pursue a new subject.
The aurora borealis is a northern hemisphere phenomenon caused by solar flare eruptions—or what scientists call a coronal mass ejection. When the particles from the flare collide with the earth’s atmosphere, it produces the dancing lights.
Tracking the solar flares, however, and figuring out when the next aurora will happen takes precision. Adams uses an app called SpaceWeatherLive to monitor the flares. The app taps into a satellite operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the U.S.
“Basically, they have a 27-day forecast, a 10-day forecast, and then when the actual event happens, a three- to five-day forecast,” he says. The three- to five-day forecast is the most accurate. The other forecasts are more of a generalization, like checking the weather network a week ahead, Adams adds.
On the nights when the aurora does occur, it’s still not a guarantee you’ll see it. Adams says three things need to happen to give you an ideal view.
First, you need clear skies. “You don’t want to go out on cloudy nights because you won’t see it,” he says. Second, you want minimal moonlight. “The brighter the moon the less you’ll see the aurora because the moon will actually white out the sky. You want a darker sky.” And third, you need good weather. “You don’t want your camera on a tripod standing out in the middle of the field when there’s a 50 to 60 km/h wind blowing, because all that’s going to do is blur your pictures.”
Another factor is choosing the right spot. Gull Lake is a favourite of Adams because it’s so open, but he also likes shooting the auroras at Buffalo Lake and Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park. “Buffalo Jump is down in the river valley so you get more of a photogenic setup,” he says.
Typically, the best time to see the aurora, at least in Western Canada, is between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. But some nights, depending on the sky, Adams says he’ll wait until five or six in the morning to capture the perfect shot.
“If people can look at these photos and see a positive side to the world we live in, especially with everything going on right now, that’s my goal,” he says.