What Are the Northern Lights? A Four Minute Guide
If you’ve ever been lucky enough to travel to the far north, in the high latitudes of the Arctic (or areas of Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia, Russia, etc.), you may have seen a mysterious phenomenon lighting up the night sky with incredible colours.
These flowing streams of light are commonly known as the Northern Lights, but the scientific term for this unforgettable natural event is the aurora borealis. In the southern hemisphere (close to Antarctica), this phenomenon is known as the aurora australis.
An aurora is not some form of dark magic; in fact, with a bit of knowledge concerning our planet and its place in the solar system, aurora can be quite easily explained. “Solar wind” is a continuous stream of highly charged particles that is launched from the upper atmosphere of our Sun, and this “wind” races through the solar system, striking planets as it moves.
When this solar wind (a form of plasma) approaches the Earth, it is deflected by the Earth’s natural electromagnetic field, protecting the planet and all of us from those dangerous radioactive particles. When there is an unusually high number of these particles passing through our planet’s magnetosphere, some of the electrons and protons are filtered down into Earth’s upper atmosphere. The release of energy (ionization and excitation of other molecules) during this filtering results in remarkable bands of light appearing in the night sky.
These auroras are typically only seen at high altitudes because the planet’s poles (North and South) attract these charged particles. Depending on the wavelength and composition of these charged particles, we see different colors. Green is the most commonly reported color, but rare auroras of blue and red can also be seen, and are typically produced by proton filtering at even lower latitudes!
These awe-inspiring sights are normally spotted in a region called the auroral zone, but every 11 years, during a large recurring geomagnetic storm, this zone expands significantly. For the three years following this “peak time”, sky-gazers at lower latitudes can enjoy one of nature’s most inexplicable and beautiful events. So, if you ever see lights dancing far on the horizon, don’t be afraid… you should consider yourself lucky. You are one of the few human beings to witness the full glory of the Northern Lights!
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