Picture this: you’re hiking through a cold, dark land. Flecks of snow are brushing your skin gently as your boots crunch in the icy ground. Suddenly, without warning, the sky explodes in a spectacular display of color. What was once dark and black is now every color all at once- blues, violets, reds, and greens dance before your eyes. This may sound like it was taken straight out of a fantasy novel, but it’s actually a very common phenomenon right here on Earth- the Aurora Borealis. OK, we admit it, that name also sounds like it was taken out of a fantasy novel, but it’s actually just a fancy name for the Northern Lights- one of nature’s most spellbinding magic tricks.
When you have a phenomenon this other-worldly, you’re going to get a lot of mythos surrounding it. Throughout history, these colorful lights have been a source of several superstitions. There are cave paintings dating back 30,000 years that depict the phenomenon and many philosophers (Aristotle, Descartes, Goethe, Halley, etc.) refer to the lights in their work. During the Civil War era, they were visible during the Battle of Fredericksburg in Virginia, which is further South than they’re typically seen. At this time, and as far back as the ancient Greeks, the Northern Lights were taken as a bad omen. Other cultures, like Lapplanders and the Inuit, had their own theories. The Lapplanders believed the lights were spirits of the dead, while the Inuit believed they were spirits playing in the sky.
The Northern Lights, otherwise known as Aurora Borealis, were originally named by Galileo Galilei. The name was inspired by the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek name for wind of the north, Boreas. The lights in the South pole were given the name Aurora Australis, but they’re not a topic of discussion nearly as often since the South Pole is much more inhospitable than the North Pole (which is saying a lot).
What Causes the Lights?
We know that, for those of us who don’t have an MBA in science, the technical aspects of natural phenomena can feel like we’re speaking Greek (well, we sort of are). So we’ll keep this as simple as possible. Our sun is millions of degrees Celsius so, at this incredibly high temperature, collisions between gas molecules are explosive and frequent. Electrons and protons are thrown from the sun’s atmosphere and escape through holes in its magnetic field during the rotation. These particles are blown toward Earth by the solar wind. The majority of these particles are deflected by our magnetic field, but the magnetic field is weaker at the North and South poles. Therefore, at either end of the Earth, some of these particles seep through our atmosphere and collide with gas particles. These collisions produce the dancing lights that have become one of our world’s greatest wonders.
What Causes the Colors?
Remember a minute ago when we talked about the collisions between our gas particles and electrons/protons particles from the sun? Well, different types of gas particles produce different colors. So, for example, when the sun’s particles collide with oxygen, it produces green and yellow lights. When it collides with nitrogen, it produces red, violet, and occasionally blue colors.
You can break it down a little further in that the colors are affected by the type of collision and the altitude where the collision happens. For example, molecular nitrogen produces a purple color while atomic nitrogen produces blue. In addition, blue light typically appears at up to 60 miles up while purple light will be visible above 60 miles up.
When & Where?
According to Space, the best places to see the lights are in Alaska and Northern Canada, but these are not always the most accessible. Other great vantage points to view the lights are in Iceland, Norway, Northern Sweden, Finland, Greenland, and New Zealand. However, during particularly active solar flares, the lights can be seen as far South as Northern England and the top of Scotland.
Typically, if you want to view these wonders of nature, experts recommend going in the months of September, October, March or April. Winter months can be especially advantageous because there are lower levels of light pollution and the air is clear.
If you want to get a truly spectacular view of the lights, however, one must plan a bit further ahead. Particular sunspots and solar storms cause the most magnificent displays of the lights possible. These peaks in the solar cycle occur roughly every 11 years, the last peak taking place in 2013. Trip to Iceland in 2024, anyone?
Fun Facts & Recent Discoveries
According to Live Science, though we typically see gorgeous shots of the Northern Lights from the Earth, our Northern lights are also visible from space. Our satellites take pictures of the lights from the Earth’s orbit and they’re actually so bright that they still show up strongly on the night side of the Earth even from the POV of another planet.
Speaking of other planets, did you know that other planets have their own versions of our Northern Lights? That’s right, Voyager’s 1, 2, and the Hubble telescope have all brought back photos of Auroras on Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Since Jupiter and Saturn’s magnetic fields have more intense magnitudes, their Auroras are much more powerful than ours on Earth.
The most recent discovery relating to the Northern Lights occurred March of 2018. Though the story began as a loose collection of speculations from citizen scientists, it ended with the confirmation of a new type of Aurora. According to The Atlantic, the newly discovered one appears as a narrow, glowing ribbon of lavender and emerald, shining in the sky from East to West. It differs from previously discovered auroras in that it can be seen from much closer to the equator and it glows from a spot twice as high in the sky. And they gave it a name fitting it’s glorious, glowing, ethereal majesty- Steve. That’s right, Steve.
These natural wonders of our world will continue to fill our skies with other-worldly displays and inspire us for centuries to come. We hope we’ve inspired you to plan a trip to see them during their next peak and that all of the Steve’s of the world feel just a little more majestic than before.
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