What are the Northern Lights?


Happy New Year to all you wonderful and curious readers!

While ringing in 2018, we saw some fantastic firework and light displays around the world.  There were some fabulous fireworks at Sydney Harbour, against the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, by the Acropolis in Athens and incredible light displays at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, at Time Square in New York City and many other places of the world.  Of all the firework and light displays though, perhaps the most spectacular, mystical and awe-inspiring one is nature’s very own light show… the Northern lights.

What are the Northern Lights?  The Northern lights are a bright fluorescent glow of light which skips and ripples across the dark space of the night sky like a shimmering curtain. This glowing phenomenon is referred to as the light of Aurora, and is called “Aurora borealis” or the Northern lights in the northern hemisphere, and “Aurora australis” or the Southern lights in the southern hemisphere.

When and where can you see the light of Aurora?  Although auroras occur all year round, the best time to see them is on a clear night during the winter months.  In the northern hemisphere, the best viewing is usually between December and March.  You can see the lights in parts of Canada, Alaska, Greenland, Iceland, Finland, and the northern coast of Norway, as well as Scotland and over the coastal waters north of Siberia, amongst other places.

Southern auroras are not as often seen because they are usually concentrated in a ring around Antarctica and the southern Indian Ocean. Sometimes though, southern light displays can be seen from parts of New Zealand.

What causes the Auroral display? The earth is surrounded by a magnetic field and this shields us from the harmful rays of the sun most of the time. Sometimes though, the sun lets out different amounts of energy, from solar storms and this energy is carried to towards the earth by solar winds. When this burst of energy is released from the sun, some part of it can be carried to the earth along the poles. The Aurora is caused because of collisions or crashing of gaseous particles in the earth’s atmosphere with electrons released from the sun.

Photo Credit: spaceplace.nasa.gov

What are electrons? Electrons are a component of particles, and are charged with energy.

What colours can we see in the night sky? The collisions release light of different colours. The most common auroral colour is a pale yellowish-green. This is produced by oxygen molecules located about 60 miles above the earth. A rare red aurora is sometimes produced by high-altitude oxygen, at heights of up to 200 miles. Nitrogen particles create blue or purplish aurora.

You might have seen the same effect as the auroral display at home when you turn on a fluorescent lamp.  The lamp is powered by a regular electric current.  The current races through the lamp’s glass tube which contains a mixture of gas.  The current that passes through the mixture boosts the electrons in the same manner the electrons above the earths poles are boost by the solar particles.  This creates a bright fluorescent glow in the same manner as the lights of Aurora.

Myths, legends and adventures – Not surprisingly, something as mystical as the phenomenon of the Northern lights has many ancient myths and legendary stories attached to it.

The term “Aurora borealis” comes from the latin words “Aurora” which means sunrise and “Boreas” which means wind.  Aurora is the Roman goddess of dawn. It was believed that Aurora, who was the sister of Helios and Selene, the god of the sun and goddess of the moon, raced across the early morning sky in her colourful chariot to let her siblings know that a new day had begun.

An early Chinese legend associates the Northern lights with dragons and the belief that they are caused by a celestial battle been good and evil dragons who breath fire.  In Finland, there is a legend that the lights were caused by the fire fox who ran so quickly across the snow that his tail made sparks fly into the night sky. Estonians believed the lights to be magnificent horse drawn carriages carrying heavenly guests to a spectacular celestial wedding.

So when you get a chance perhaps you could go on your own adventure and view the Northern lights and see what wonderful stories they inspire you to think up on a cold winter night!

Contributed by: Purnima Thacker


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