Record-Breaking Aurora Streak Of 2019, Churchill, Manitoba

Natural Habitat Adventures guide extraordinaire Brad Josephs is in Churchill and the northern lights have been better than ever! This post he wrote is originally published on his Bears and Beyond blog site. Check out his other chronicles of all his amazing adventures guiding around the globe.

I just finished guiding two of my most productive Aurora expeditions I have ever guided.  Many people assume that since we are no longer at the peak of the 11-year cycle, aurora displays are poor- well the last few weeks has proved that very wrong! Aurora has put on a show 95% of the nights from January 20-February 12.  This is off the charts! Here are some highlight images of an amazing two trips….. All images were taken with Sony A9 and 16-35 2.8 Sony GM lens.

Here is one still from a time-lapse sequence that I hope to create soon. My Sony A9 collects so much color and light I had to desaturate the image to keep it from looking artificial. This was taken during a KP-3 display at the Natural Habitat Adventures’ Aurora Pod.

One still from a time-lapse sequence that I have yet to create. This was a super strong display on a kp-5 night. Taken in the boreal forest near Dave Daly’s dog mushing camp. I adjusted the white balance to fluorescent because the original shot was too yellow.  I also desaturated it 10 points in lightroom.

 

The aurora pod.

I love to have iconic white spruce trees in the foreground.

 

One of the favorites of the season- Dave Daly’s traditional Metis teepee.

 

                                                                         

The boreal forest behind the Northern Studies Center made for an excellent foreground during this KP-3 display.

The skies went wild the last night of our last trip between 12:30 and 1:30 am. Folks who slept in that morning were thankful that they had the energy to stay awake and alert during a lifetime highlight for us all.

Travelers Phil and Lynne Seymour with an aurora background. I used a split second of light from a flashlight to illuminate them.

This display was short but beautiful on the first night of our first trip on a KP-2 night. I desaturated this 4-second exposure image with an ISO 2000 to -14 in lightroom.

The Aurora Pod is shown at the left corner.

Here is a repost of a blog post I did last year on how to photograph aurora Aurora Photography 101-

Tis the season for aurora borealis photography! Long nights and cold, clear arctic high-pressure systems make late January-March the best time to go chase those magical northern lights. Traveling to the north in the winter can be an intimidating adventure, and photographing the aurora is some of the most challenging photography in existence. Here are a few ideas to help folks make the most of their auroral endeavors.

Where to go? Without getting into too many geophysical details…. There are two bands which are centered around the magnetic poles in the Northern and Southern high latitudes. Your best chance to see auroral activity is under the Auroral Oval or Van Allen Belt. In the North, the oval is shifted south of the true north pole in Canada, so central and eastern Canada gets auroras further south than anywhere else.

This is the band of auroral activity shown by this map, made by the University of Alaska Fairbanks, on an average night. Notice that Hudson Bay is the furthest south extent of the band.

By looking at the map above, one would travel to somewhere under the bright green ring. Popular locations in Canada are Whitehorse, Yellowknife and Churchill, Manitoba. In Alaska, the band is centered north of Fairbanks, near the Arctic Circle (much further north than it is in Canada). Two factors are very important to consider; logistics and weather. I recommend traveling to a place where the weather is on average the clearest. Central Canada has a much higher chance of clear skies than Iceland or Scandinavia, which are dominated by Atlantic Ocean marine weather (clouds, rain, storms.) For logistics, if you are in London, it is much easier to go to Norway than Manitoba….  If you live in the United States, Manitoba is a very easy trip.
If you plan to travel to a city like Yellowknife or Fairbanks, you must get far outside of town (at least 20 miles), as city lights obscure aurora viewing.

There are many reasons why NatHab chooses Churchill, Manitoba as the base for our aurora trips. First, it is very easy to get to for North American travelers. We start our trips from Winnipeg which is just a quick hop from Chicago, Minneapolis or Denver, and then we charter a 2-hour flight to Churchill as a group- much easier than going to Northeastern Alaska! Also, Churchill is far away from the cloud-producing Pacific Ocean, so we have a great chance for clear skies now that Hudson Bay has frozen. Plus there are lots of cool things to do during the day, like dog mushing and igloo building.

A shorter exposure will capture the definition in the auroral “curtains,” giving them sharp lines and edges. You can still capture enough light in under 5 seconds by using a higher ISO, and using a lens that gathers light such as an f 2.8 or lower.

Settings and Equipment-Setting your camera up to photograph aurora is a little bit complicated, and doing so in the dark, in very cold temperatures makes it as difficult as any type of photography in my opinion.

Aperture– Open as wide as your lens will go (f2.8 on my canon 16-35)

Shutter Speed– Generally between 1 and 10 seconds. A shorter exposure will make the aurora sharper, as they are moving.ISO– At least 1000, as you are trying to capture lots of light in a short amount of time. Noise produced by higher ISOs is easily corrected in Lightroom.

Focus– You MUST be on manual focus, as your camera will not fire in the dark on autofocus. Set your focus to Infinity (far away.) My lens has a distance meter on it, so I can focus on infinity very easily. If you don’t have that, try focusing on the moon, or a far away light and leave it there. Turning your focus ring all the way counter-clockwise does not work, as infinity is actually just a hare back to the right.

Self Timer- I use a 2-second timer, so when I push the shutter it does not move the camera. I have had very bad luck with cable releases at cold temps. After a few minutes at -20f or colder the cable becomes stiff and the camera electronics start going haywire.

Tripod- Must have! Really cheap, flimsy plastic tripods are difficult to adjust at night, clunky, and can become brittle and break in the cold.

Filters- remove UV and polarizers as they can cause distortion during long exposures in the low light.

Aurora over a traditional Metis teepee outside of Churchill at Dave Daly’s dog mushing camp (Wapusk Adventures.)

Dealing with cold temps-
I always set my camera settings inside a warm place with plenty of light, then move the camera outside and leave it there for the duration of the night. The camera generally doesn’t care about the cold, but when you move it inside, the warm humid air immediately freezes on the cold surface. Ice will form on the glass until the internal temperature of the lens warms up, which could be hours! This condensation is not good for electronics. When I go inside to warm up I remove the battery and take it inside with me, so it is a good idea to make sure you have a tripod base which allows for easy access of the battery while the camera is mounted. I put a cloth over the camera so that hoarfrost doesn’t accumulate on the camera while it is outside and not being used.  Do not breath on the lens!  At the end of the night, I seal the camera inside a ziplock bag so it warms up slowly and is not exposed to all of the moisture in the inside air.
Be very careful of frostbite! I have gotten frostbite 3 times in my life- all while photographing aurora in Churchill. I have frozen the tip of my nose twice because it touched the LCD screen. Touching metal at very cold temps can cause near-instant frostbite. Wrapping plastic tape around metal tripod legs can help with this.  Also, remember these conditions are extremely dehydrating, so drink way more water than you think you need to maintain your energy level, comfort and immune system.

What To Bring? 

-Tripod. Don’t go too cheap and make sure it easy to use. Figure out how to use it before you go!
Wide angle lens– 16 mm or less for a cropped sensor camera, 24 or less for full frame camera. My friends are recommending the Rokinon 14mm 2.8 and the 24mm 1.5, I love my canon 16-35 2.8!

-Gloves- Bring a variety of weights ranging from heavy mittens to light liners that you can adjust your camera with.

-Headlamp– A red light lens or covering helps from blinding your partners.

-External batteries for devices- Your smartphone battery won’t like the cold any more than you. Expect 20% of your normal battery life.  Also, bring some extra camera batteries and an extra charger just in case!

-Boots– Sorel or similar with a removable liner so you can dry them out at night. Condensation will make them damp as your body heat touches the cold rubber(provided by Natural Habitat)

Hand and toe warmers, Facemask and really warm hat. (provided by Natural Habitat)

-Parka – depending on where and when you go will determine how heavy it needs to be.(provided by Natural Habitat)

-Snowpants- Insulated and windproof. (provided by Natural Habitat)

Dave Daly’s Metis Teepee with active auroral substorm raging above.

Expectations- Inaccurate expectations are the most common cause of a bad trip. Remember, aurora doesn’t appear to your eyes as it does in a good photo. Camera sensors can gather light, especially the rare purples and reds that sometimes appear. Photographers also often oversaturate their photos in post-process to wow their social media followings. I call this the “dirty little secret of the North.” Photographers are normally very pleased with their images, but people expect to be “dazzled” in real life after watching high-speed time lapses on the internet are often disappointed.  That being said, experiencing the aurora borealis is a magical opportunity that everyone should brave at least once in their lives.  I never tire of watching them dance, looking at my photos, and helping others do the same!

Myself and Jim Floyd self-portrait in front of a cozy dog mushing tent in the Boreal forest outside of Churchill on a frigid night.

More to come soon-North to the future! Brad

Churchill Video of the Week – A Trip Down the Tracks

Arnaud Maldague made this epic bicycle journey along the tracks of the Hudson Bay Line from Churchill to Gillam to bring awareness to the plight of Churchill, Nunavut and communities affected by the loss of rail service. For over a year the tracks have been unusable and no train is able to reach the northern terminus of Churchill. With a new deal for a local group and financial investor to buy the port in place, hopes are high that the isolation will end soon. Below is Arnaud’s account of the situation:

“After skiing the Arctic for 100 days, I arrived in Churchill, Canada, only to discover the city had no more functioning railroad. The rails were flooded on 23 may 2017 after a huge winter storm hit the region earlier this winter. The damaged rails suffered some washouts, which cut the city only ground supply and communication mean. Private owner Omnitrax, whom is legally bind to maintain the tracks, refused to repair the line, pretexting exaggerated costs and financial failure. The government refused to funnel money to the company, resulting in a political drama and no repairs. Churchill’s citizen are stuck with high prices, jobs cuts and a bitter feeling of being abandoned. The situation also impacted the whole Kivalliq region, Nunavut, which relied on Churchill rail supply line. One year later, nothing had changed… Since the rails were part of my itinerary and “The Manneken Trip” expedition, I decided to shoot this video while cycling the rails down towards Gillam and later Winnipeg. The idea was to generate some awareness and report on the state of the rails. As expected, the damages aren’t that bad, and could easily be repaired. It was a horrible ride with its lot of nice surprises! Nature was super beautiful however : the taiga, the boreal forest and lots of birds. Three days after finishing the trip, 41 communities joined together with private company Fairfax and AGT in order to buy the Hudson Bay Railroad and port. It’s an historic move from these community which retransfer ownership into local hands! However, no date has been set for the repairs yet… Due to intensive and long winters, repairs can only take place during the few summer months. If repairs don’t start soon, Churchill might have to face another winter without train.”

Arnaud Maldague.

Inuvik Satellite Stations Await Federal Approval

When one thinks Arctic landscape, one usually visualizes serene endless tundra or boreal forest with snow covered trees! There’s a section of that austere boreal forest in Inuvik that has five dormant satellite receivers that look alien to the habitat and have been ready for use since 2016.

The satellite receivers were built by Norway’s Kongsberg Satellite Services and American satellite company Planet Lab. Over 18 months ago the application process for federal licensing commenced and since has been caught up in government red tape. The anticipated turnaround was six months.

Going into the application process, both companies expected a turnaround of about 180 days. Word surfaced last week that the licenses were finally approved though no formal announcement has been made. Global Affairs Canada, needs to approve an auxiliary license under Canada’s Remote Sensing Space Systems Act. Until this happens the dishes cannot be activated. Since these installations are integral to a remote sensing space system they need approval from the two agencies.

Inuvik Satellite

Inoperable Invuk Satellite receivers constructed two years ago are unused due to one federal license still needing approval. Rolf Skatteboe photo.

President and CEO of Kongsberg Satellite Services, Rolf Skatteboe, stated the license delays are costing his business money since he is unable to fulfill a contract with the European Space Agency.

“I’ve got the message … hey you’ve gotten the approvals now you can get started, which unfortunately isn’t true,” he said.

Global Affairs Canada apparently has cleared the department to “proceed in evaluating our application” according to Skatteboe.

“We still don’t know … when we will potentially get a license or not,” Skatteboe said. “That’s the most frustrating part.”

Planet Lab and Kongsberg have spent millions to build the installations at Inuvik  Skatteboe values the single large antenna installation at around $6 million, and four of the smaller Planet Lab installations at roughly $8 million. The sixth antenna has received the licensing it needs since its use under the Remote Sensing Space Systems Act did not require review.

Kongsberg constructed its satellite installations in Inuvik prior to being issued a license since the building season in the North is so short and doesn’t allow for flexibility. The company didn’t anticipate delays of the magnitude that has occurred.

Skatteboe added Kongsberg contracted with the European Space Agency to utilize the Inuvik ground station in conjunction with the European Space Agency (ESA) environmental Earth monitoring project named the Copernicus program.

A Kongsberg Satellite Services satellite station in Svalbard, Norway is one of 21 stations around the world and had very little resistance for permitting unlike what he has encountered in Canada according to company president and CEO Rolf Skatteboe. Rolf Skatteboe photo.

“[Kongsberg Satellite] has 21 ground stations around the world and they have all been licensed without any problems,” he said.

“So [Kongsberg] did not expect any problems related to approval to receive … data from an ESA satellite, an organization where Canada also is an associated member.”

“[Kongsberg Satellite] applied more than a year before the system was planned to be operational,” said Skatteboe.

The uncertainty surrounding when, or if, Kongsberg’s installations will ever be approved for use is the main concern.

“If Canada decided what we’re doing is a threat to national security, fine, I accept that,” he said.

“The frustrating part is that we haven’t gotten any feedback on the timescale for them to rule on this one.”

Global Affairs Canada, department spokesperson Brittany Venhola-Fletcher said in an email statement that, “Global Affairs Canada continues to work closely” with Kongsberg and Planet Labs to finalize and hopefully approve their licensing application.

Massive Caribou Herd in 360

Some of North America’s largest caribou herd – females only- are heading north toward Nunavik. The females head out of Quebec’s boreal forest a few weeks ahead of males to get settled in and have their calves. Averaging 20 km per day, the caribou will used their scoop – shaped hooves to dig for lichen deep beneath the snow to keep energy for the trek. Once they arrive in the north they will feast on a plethora of grasses and plants.

This amazing footage was captured by Wild Canadian Year film crew lead by filmmaker Justin McGuire. The crew flew by helicopter into the barren tundra region and placed a 360 degree camera ahead of the herd and hoped for the best.

“You find yourself in another world. It’s a landscape of quietness and caribou tracks – a vast expanse of compacted snow formed by thousands of moving animals.” stated McGuire . “We watched hopefully. After all our efforts, it would still take a bit of luck to get a our shot. And then – success! The migrating caribou passed right by the 360-camera, seemingly inquisitive of this foreign arrival in their land.”

The never – before – seen footage is truly unique and intimate!

Churchill Blizzard Finally Subsides

Environment Canada defines blizzard conditions as visibility is less than 400 m resulting from blowing and/or falling snow for a minimum of four hours. Well, Churchill endured these conditions and more for over 56 hours and now the digging out begins.

Between 9 a.m. Tuesday and 5 p.m.Thursday the town and region was under siege from mother nature’s wrath and was under full blizzard conditions. Now the town looks like the north pole. Wind and frigid conditions have prevailed hindering clean – up efforts and it will be awhile before the town is functioning normally.

Peak gusts of 105 km/hr kept the town at a standstill with only the health center open after the loading dock was cleared and used as an entrance for patients. As usual in Churchill, snowfall will be hard to measure within town limits as the wind gusts move the snow into massive drifts. More accurate measurements can be found in the boreal forest but hard to reach for sure.

These photos are pretty unbelievable and are the most snow we have seen from one system in decades! What a ride the last few days have been for all the hearty Churchillians! We should be getting some epic northern lights shots within the next week with unique snow formations in the frames.

churchill blizzard

An eight-foot tunnel of snow to get into the house! Kelly Turcotte photo.

 

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Churchill’s loader clearing the streets finally. Jodi Grosbrink photo.

 

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No way out of the human door even. Jodi Grosbrink photo.

 

Churchill blizzard

Snow piled up in Churchill all the way to second story of apartments. Jodi Grosbrink photo.

 

churchill blizzard

Churchill is surely snowbound. Jodi Grosbrink photo.

 

churchill blizzard

Engine compartment of a Churchill vehicle. Belinda Fitzpatrick photo.

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