© McCord Museum
Aurora borealis observation journal of Sir George Back
Sir George Back
1833-1835, 19th century
Gift of Mr. Norman Pares
© McCord Museum
Sir George Back (1796-1878) was a marine officer, an artist and an Arctic explorer. In 1819, he accompanied John Franklin's expedition to the Coppermine River, and in 1824, again with Franklin, he undertook an overland expedition to the mouth of Great Bear Lake and along the shores of the Arctic Ocean. In 1834, while on a rescue mission to find John Ross, he discovered the Thlew-ee-choh (or Great Fish River) that later bore his name. In 1839 he received a medal from the Royal Society of Geography and the title of Knight (Chevalier). The diaries of Sir George Back, dating from 1833 to 1835, record the challenges and hardships faced by Arctic explorers of the period.
Keys to History:
Much of what we now know about the Arctic explorations of the 19th century we owe to the accounts of officers and sailors who were involved in the expeditions. Although some of these "authors" noted the strict minimum in their diaries, others were more expansive, including observations on the wildlife, plants, weather, daily life aboard ship or meetings with the Inuit. This is the case of Sir George Back (1796-1878), whose journal of the expedition of 1819-22 reveals as much about "his own complex temperament" as about the "human drama that developed as the expedition faced an increasingly perilous series of trials." Back also left another, more scientific journal, in which he wrote his observations of the northern lights on a subsequent expedition, from 1833 to 1835. As he was also an artist, he illustrated his journal with small watercolours that constitute invaluable evidence of the scientific study conducted by the 19th-century explorers.
The northern lights (or aurora borealis) look like streamers or bands of light of various colours. They are not reflections of sunlight on Arctic ice, as many people believe, but the result of the collision of solar particles with the Earth's atmosphere.
The northern lights can generally be seen at about 70 degrees of latitude, near the Arctic circle. The aurora is emitted at altitudes of 80-150 km, in the ionosphere (one of the upper layers of the Earth's atmosphere).
The northern lights can occur at any time of year. However, as they are only visible at night, winter is a good time to see them. They are more frequent every eleven years, a cycle that corresponds with maximum sunspot activity.
It was probably Galileo who, in the 17th century, named this phenomenon the aurora borealis. The Inuit had long held a variety of beliefs associated with the northern lights, sometimes interpreting them as the dance of the spirits of certain animals or even departed humans.