What are the Northern Lights?


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Also known as the Aurora, there is a beautiful light show that nature puts on, illuminating the sky in yellows, reds, greens, and violets. The best place to watch the lights are at the magnetic poles; however, it is possible to see them in other areas, depending on how much artificial light is around, according to the "Northern Lights Centre" website. 

Depending upon your location, this light show can occur on every other clear night for places like Finnmark, or it can occur a few times a century for places like Europe, according to an article by Truls Lynne Hansen for Tromso Geophysical Observatory.   

So what causes the sky to do this? It seems almost magical. The colors are a result of "collisions between gaseous particles in the Earth's atmosphere with charged particles released from the sun's atmosphere" (Northern Lights Centre). In other words, a bunch of electrons stream towards the Earth really fast along its magnetic field, and they collide with air particles high up in the sky, usually between 90-130km above sea level. Then the air lights up, kind of like a fluorescent light tube (Hansen). The different colors depend on which types of gases are colliding. For example, the blueish colors are Nitrogen, and the yellows and greens are caused by Oxygen molecules.   

The charged electrons are traveling from the sun, and it takes them about three days to reach the Earth's magnetic field. Once they get there, the magnetic field will prevent the solar wind from getting into the atmosphere, causing the solar particles to rest around Earth in a place called the magnetosphere, according to an article by Neil Davis on the State of Alaska's website. From there, solar wind will power a "gigantic electrical discharge process," which will cause the magnetosphere to produce a lot of electrical power (Davis).

In addition to the magnetosphere, there is a thin and partially ionized layer of the atmosphere called the ionosphere. Radio waves often bounce between this layer and the Earth's surface. An aurora display occurs when the ionosphere and our own atmosphere are being "energized by the electric power generated in the magnetosphere" (Davis). The visible light is just a result of the electrical currents that are being produced. 

Check out this website for recent pictures and videos of the Aurora:http://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/news/environment-news/norway-aurora-borealis-vin/

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Photo by Huffington Post/Google Images

3 Comments

The Northern Lights are so interesting to me. I actually got to see them from an airplane a few years ago!! I did some more research about the different colors of the Northern Lights because I was always curious as to how there was more than one. The most common color is a yellowish-green and can be found 60 miles above the Earth. Its color is created by oxygen molecules. Next, is red, which is created by high-altitude oxygen, 200 miles up. Lastly there is blue and purplish-red, which is created by nitrogen and is located beyond 200 miles from Earth.

http://www.northernlightscentre.ca/northernlights.html

I thought that your post was really interesting. The Northern Lights have always been fascinating to me and it's on my bucket list to see them before I die. Even though I didn't understand a lot of the technical science talk, I liked that you described what exactly the Northern Lights were. I like knowing what they are as opposed to 'just pretty colors in the sky'. Here's a website that I found that shows the forecast for the Northern Lights: http://www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast

Seeing the Northern Lights is also a personal bucket list goal of mine. I have always ooooh'd and aahhh'd at them but still yearn to see them in person. I always knew they were created by Earth's atmosphere but I never knew that the different colors were formed by the different particles in the air! As basically everyone else says.. it's "really interesting."

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