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Northern Lights Resources and Information

Seeing the moon and stars peppering the sky with tiny lights can be very commonplace, but there is nothing more fascinating than seeing a vast display of lights that is widely known as the Northern Lights. The Northern Lights are also known as the Aurora Borealis, named in 1621 by Pierre Gassendi, a French astronomer. Gassendi borrowed the names of Aurora, the goddess of dawn in Roman mythology, and Boreas, the bearer of the north wind in Greek mythology, to name the spectacular phenomenon. The Northern Lights, as its name suggests, take place in the Northern Hemisphere, while parallel light displays called Aurora Australis also occur across the Southern Hemisphere. What makes these glowing exhibitions more fascinating is that anyone can observe them with the naked eye.

Auroral Mechanism

The interaction between the atmospheres of the Sun and the Earth is generally the primary explanation for the Northern Lights. The solar wind, which is the Sun’s external atmosphere, contains many particles: molecules, atoms, electrons, and protons. All of these particles travel downwards to the Earth, which has its own external magnetic field. The solar particles treat the Earth’s magnetic field as a barrier because they cannot travel across it, much like a pedestrian cannot cross the street full of speeding cars. The particles are then forced to move along the direction the magnetic field is moving, and in doing so, they bump against the particles inside the magnetic field. The collision of these particles can result to two things. The first thing that can happen is that the solar particles can be absorbed into the Earth’s magnetic field and excite the other particles. An alternative effect is that the particles crash against each other. These two incidents will both discharge some energy, which results in a burst of light. In this way, the Northern Lights are born.

Forms and Magnetism

 The Northern Lights are typically shaped like curtains, in which the lights are dispersed lengthwise across the sky. They also occasionally take the form of arcs. In either shapes, the Northern Lights usually consist of light beams positioned alongside each other, showing in which direction the magnetic field is travelling. This occurrence demonstrates that the pull of the magnetic field influences the shape of the Northern Lights and of all auroras in general, since the charged particles can only move along the magnetic field’s direction. These draperies of light can linger in the sky for long periods because the magnetic field slows down the movement of the particles. The color of the Northern Lights, on the other hand, depends on which elements are prominent when the particles are broken down. Oxygen particles give off colors of green and red, while nitrogen particles are seen as either blue or red. These colors can also mix together to form other colors such as purple, pink, and orange. The colors will also have a gradation as the Northern Lights go upward. The topmost part of an aurora usually contain red hues, the middle part holds a greenish light, while the bottom part of the aurora is painted with shades of blue and red.

Solar Wind and the Magnetosphere

What makes the Northern Lights even more special is that the elements creating them are just byproducts of a more powerful energy. These elements are the Sun’s solar wind, and the Earth’s magnetic field. The Sun’s fierce temperature heats its external surface so much that the outermost layer boils and evaporates away. This evaporation creates the solar wind, a thin stratum of gas surrounding the Sun. The Earth, as we all know, is a massive magnet floating in space. The planet’s magnetic force is so powerful that it also creates a layer of atmosphere called the magnetosphere. The magnetosphere, as with the Sun’s solar wind, also encircles the Earth, but its magnitude is restricted by the extent of the solar wind, as how a bigger object squishes a smaller object to obtain more space. When the solar wind travels toward the Earth, it bumps against and joins the magnetic field as it travels around the planet. The solar winds also play a part in making the Northern Lights more curtain-like, because it bends the magnetic field every time it bumps into it. In turn, this makes the lights sway and bend, much like how the wind creates fold and striations to a curtain as it blows.

Frequency of Occurrence

The Northern Lights will always be seen in the Northern Hemisphere, so Iceland, Alaska, Canada, and Scandinavia will always have their share of beautiful light displays. Auroras in general usually occur in the north and south poles because they are closest to the solar winds, as opposed to the inner areas of the Earth. Spring and autumn are the two ideal seasons to best observe many Northern Lights, because these seasons are when sub-storms, which cause auroras to form, usually occur. The Earth’s axis is tilted at a twenty-three-degree angle, while the Sun’s axis slants at 8 degrees. Both axes are sitting on an identical level during the equinox, which occur separately during spring and autumn. Scientists have discovered that during the two equinoxes, the Earth’s position in relation to the Sun is ideal for the former’s magnetic field to meet the latter’s solar wind. This makes for an abundance of auroras during those seasons. The explanation of the equinox may probably be just one reason for the occurrence of the Northern Lights in certain periods. In any case, scientists and everyone else will always enjoy looking up at the sky and gaze at the natural light displays, no matter the explanation behind it.

The Northern Lights have long been a mesmerizing mystery before the advent of technology that many cultures took to explaining the phenomenon with such imagination. The Scottish referred to them as the “merry dancers,” while Scandinavians believed the Northern Lights were magnified reflections of herring schools. Today, the reasons behind the Northern Lights are yet to be completely uncovered, but one thing will always remain the same: the Northern Lights are a natural wonder to behold.

Additional Resources

BOREALIS 2000 - a collection of photo galleries of the many occurrences of the Northern Lights throughout the years, as well as the many events in space, such as meteor showers and planetary alignments.

The Aurora Page – a page dedicated entirely to auroras. A visitor can look at images, click links to articles and tutorials, and even learn how to make their own aurora detector.

What are the northern lights? – a page from the digital Library of Congress that provides fun science facts, related web sites, and further reading about the Northern Lights.

Frequently Asked Questions About Auroras and Answers – the page created by Dirk Lummerzheim compiles a list of questions about auroras frequently sent to Lummerzheim via e-mail. Every question is provided with an in-depth answer.

Astronomy Picture of the Day – an archive of a photographs and images featured each day to further explain and discover the many wonders of the universe. In this specific page, a beautiful picture of the Northern Lights is featured.
Geophysical Institute – a site that forecasts the when and where Auroras can be observed.

Aurora Borealis in Minnesota – Information and resources about auror watching in Minnesota.

National Geographic Photography – a list of photographs of the Northern Lights featured in different National Geographic Traveler magazines, as well as photographs of Northern Lights you can use as your desktop wallpaper.

Facts and Info about Aurora Borealis – this page contains important but concise information about the Northern Lights. A visitor can also learn about some certain words and phrases about the Northern Lights, as well as some “fast facts” about it.

How does the aurora borealis (the Northern Lights) work? – A page that provides an inside look on how the Northern Lights occur.

Aurorawatch – A site created by Lancaster University’s Department of Physics that lets visitors monitor in real time any magnetic activity in the sky. The site also offers a free email service that can alert a subscriber of any auroral activities.

Auroras: Painting in the Sky – take a self-guided tour of all things auroras: what they are, what they look like, and why they happen. The site also redirects you to further links and resources about auroras.

GPS failing? Blame the Northern Lights – an article published in The Telegraph about how Northern Lights can interfere with a Global Positioning System (GPS).

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