(Northern) lights, cameras, action Manitobans brave extreme cold to photograph dazzling display

Growing up in western India, Mary Patel read all about the northern lights and dreamed of one day seeing them dancing above her head.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 03/02/2022 (239 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Growing up in western India, Mary Patel read all about the northern lights and dreamed of one day seeing them dancing above her head.

It was after she created a canvas painting of the phenomenon, which is out of reach in that part of the world, she decided she would make it happen.

Patel, 33, ended up moving to Manitoba in 2020 to join her husband, Hetal Suthar, 35. Within months, she was seeing the breathtaking aurora borealis for the first time.

Since then, nothing has stopped the Selkirk couple from chasing the lights — even the extreme cold.

SUPPLIED Extreme cold didn't stop Hetal Suthar and Mary Patel, who live in Selkirk, from chasing the northern lights.

“It is like a dream come true. We are seriously interested in seeing the northern lights,” said Patel, who, along with her husband, is from Anand, Gujarat. “Any time they are out, we go out.”

Patel and Suthar were among the hardcore Manitobans who, despite wind chills of almost -50, stayed up until the early hours of Thursday to photograph the most dazzling display of the year so far.

“It was so cold we couldn’t be outside more than 15 to 20 minutes. I took five to six pictures, and that’s it,” said Patel.

The couple, who staked out a spot near Winnipeg Beach, spent much of the night staying warm in a running vehicle amid an extreme cold warning issued by Environment Canada.

After they returned home at about 2:30 a.m., the pair set an alarm and woke up an hour later to watch the display again.

Mary Patel photo - near Winnipeg Beach - early February 3, 2022 NORTHERN LIGHTS: Manitobans braved wind chills as low as -52 in the early morning hours to snap photos as the Northern Lights put on a dazzling display across the province.

Skywatchers across the province braved the elements to watch the spectacle, which began Wednesday night.

Justin Anderson, who took pictures near Justice, a village northeast of Brandon, said he tends to lose track of how cold he is when the northern lights are shifting shapes.

“They are one of nature’s most beautiful things you can see. What people are willing to do to capture them is pretty remarkable,” the 24-year-old said. “Us aurora chasers are pretty crazy. I’m shocked how many people were out (in the cold).”

“Us aurora chasers are pretty crazy. I’m shocked how many people were out (in the cold).” – Justin Anderson

Like Patel and Suthar, he spent much of his night in his running truck, jumping out occasionally to handle his cameras, until 1 a.m.

“When it’s -40, I’m not stepping away from the truck,” said Anderson, co-founder of a Facebook group called Manitoba Aurora and Astronomy, which has 35,000 members.

Camera batteries were no match for the cold. Anderson went through five in the four hours he was out.

Brandon photographer Justin Oertel, 24, had a frosted beard as he watched the spectacle near his home between 3 and 4 a.m.

“It was quiet and surreal. The air felt so fresh and crisp,” said Oertel, who runs the Manitoba Weather Centre Facebook page. “You want to make sure that you have many layers on when you venture out during an extreme cold warning to view the aurora. I was glad the winds were light because it actually made it feel bearable to be out.”

“You want to make sure that you have many layers on when you venture out during an extreme cold warning to view the aurora.” – Justin Oertel

For aurora chasers in southern Manitoba, it was the best display since an intensely spectacular show Nov. 4, 2021. The sky was clear and moonlight didn’t interfere.

“It didn’t go super crazy, but it was still a good night,” said Anderson.

“The conditions were kind of perfect as long as you don’t mind the -40, -50 wind chills,” said Scott Young, the Manitoba Museum’s Planetarium astronomer.

The performance was far more vivid in northern communities such as Churchill and Lynn Lake.

Aurora borealis wasn’t the only celestial sight. A thin crescent moon and Jupiter appeared to be very close together.

Seeing the northern lights is a thrilling experience, but it comes with risks in the winter. This week’s extreme cold and snowfall highlight the dangers, said Young.

JUSTIN ANDERSON / SUPPLIED Justin Anderson took this photo near Justice, Man., (northeast of Brandon). Manitobans braved wind chills as low as -52 in the early morning hours to snap photos as the Northern Lights put on a dazzling display across the province.

“We were recommending that people not go out of town for the northern lights the last few nights,” he said. “It was too cold. You don’t want people driving on back roads that haven’t been plowed.”

People should tell someone where they are going, and have plenty of winter clothing, an emergency kit, a fully charged mobile phone and a full tank of gas when they head out, the experts said.

Thursday’s display was triggered by a powerful solar flare, or eruption, that took place Saturday. High energy particles from the sun hurtled through space for days before colliding with Earth’s magnetic field.

When this happens, the energy is funnelled towards the magnetic North and South poles, making the air essentially glow in the dark, said Young.

“The sun is the source of all the northern lights activity,” he said. “When a big flare occurs on the sun, it’s like a gust of wind. Think of the northern lights like a flag. As soon as you get a big wind, the flag starts flapping.”

chris.kitching@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @chriskitching

Chris Kitching
Reporter

As a general assignment reporter, Chris covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.

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