The northern lights, also known as the aurora borealis, are one of nature’s most dazzling spectacles. These colorful, dancing lights in the night sky have captivated people for thousands of years. From ancient mythology to modern science, the northern lights continue to inspire awe and wonder.
Let’s explore 15 fascinating facts about this magical phenomenon:
1. The northern lights are the result of solar storms
The aurora borealis is caused by collisions between gaseous particles in the Earth’s atmosphere and charged particles from the sun. Solar storms on the surface of the sun give off clouds of electrically charged particles that travel millions of miles and interact with gases in the upper atmosphere. This interaction with oxygen and nitrogen results in the eerie, colorful glow of the northern lights.
2. They are visible near the north magnetic pole
The northern lights occur in an oval-shaped region centered around the north magnetic pole. This auroral oval expands during intense solar activity, making the lights visible farther away from the pole. The best views are in high-latitude regions like Alaska, Canada, Iceland, Greenland, Norway, Sweden, and Finland.
3. The southern lights exist too
The aurora australis, or southern lights, occur near the south magnetic pole around Antarctica. They are a mirror image of the northern lights but are less frequently seen due to Antarctica’s remote location.
4. The colors depend on the gases involved
Oxygen emits green and red light, while nitrogen glows blue and purple. The most common auroral color is a bright green, caused by high-altitude oxygen about 60 miles above the earth. Rare red auroras occur at altitudes over 200 miles and are nitrogen-based.
5. They were mentioned in ancient Chinese records
The first known written record of the aurora borealis dates back over 2,500 years 1. In 2600 BC, Chinese chroniclers noted “five-colored lights” flickering in the night sky. Aboriginal Australians also incorporated the lights into their oral traditions and legends.
6. Many cultures saw them as omens
Before science explained the northern lights, many cultures viewed them as omens. The Vikings saw the lights as a bridge to the afterlife, while other Europeans saw them as harbingers of war or famine. The Inuit described them as spirits playing ball with a walrus skull.
7. They make sounds sometimes
While visually stunning, the aurora borealis occasionally produces audible sounds described as hisses, crackles, or claps. These rare “auroral sounds” may be related to electromagnetic energy changes during intense solar activity.
8. The name comes from Roman mythology
In 1621, Galileo named the phenomenon “aurora borealis” after Aurora, the Roman goddess of dawn, and Boreas, the Greek god of the north wind. He thought the lights were sunlight reflecting off the atmosphere.
9. They can disrupt technology
Solar storms that cause the northern lights can also wreak havoc with communications systems and power grids. In 1989, a major solar storm blacked out the entire Canadian province of Quebec within seconds.
10. The northern lights are always shifting
The dancing lights are never static, constantly moving and changing in response to solar wind conditions. They may appear as diffuse glow, active arcs, or violently flickering, spiraling patterns during a major geomagnetic storm.
11. You can hear them sometimes
Some auroras are accompanied by a crackling or popping sound as electromagnetic energy is released high above the earth. These elusive “auroral sounds” remain unexplained by scientists.
12. The lights can move at over 100,000 mph
The speed at which the auroral lights move is astonishing – over 100,000 mph for the fast-moving forms. Slower-moving auroral arcs drift at a speed of about 25,000 mph.
13. They are a key part of northern cultures
The northern lights feature prominently in the traditions of Arctic indigenous cultures. The Inuit see the lights as spirits of animals and people, while the Sami people of Lapland have over 300 words to describe the lights.
14. The northern lights are studied worldwide
Auroral science is a specialty field with research observatories all over the globe. Scientists study the lights to better understand the sun-earth connection, space weather, and the upper atmosphere.
15. Seeing the northern lights is a bucket list goal
Watching the magical northern lights shimmer and dance across the night sky is a top travel experience for people all over the world. From late August through April, aurora seekers flock to northern destinations hoping to glimpse this celestial wonder.
The mysterious beauty of the northern lights has captivated people for millennia. These colorful harbingers of solar storms continue to reveal insights about our planet and the connected forces of space. For a thrilling visual journey, witnessing the aurora borealis should be on everyone’s bucket list.
The Northern Lights
The northern lights, or aurora borealis, offer one of the most spellbinding sights in nature. These dancing, colorful lights in the night sky are the product of solar wind meeting Earth’s atmosphere near the magnetic poles. Here are 15 interesting facts about this astronomical phenomenon:
- Auroras occur when energetic particles from the sun interact with gases in Earth’s upper atmosphere. This causes the atmospheric gases to glow.
- The lights are concentrated in an oval centered around the magnetic north pole. This is called the auroral oval.
- Oxygen gives off green and red light. Nitrogen glows blue, violet, and pink. The mix of excess energies and gases produces the lights’ distinctive colors.
- The southern lights, or aurora australis, occur around the south magnetic pole near Antarctica. They are less common than their northern counterpart.
- Aboriginal Australians incorporated the auroras into their oral traditions and legends. Some saw them as omens.
- The first written record of the northern lights comes from over 2,500 years ago in ancient Chinese texts.
- The name “aurora borealis” comes from the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek god of the north wind, Boreas.
- Major solar storms can expand the auroral oval, making the lights visible farther from the poles and brighter.
- The shimmering, dancing lights are constantly in motion in response to solar wind conditions.
- Though visually stunning, auroras occasionally also produce hissing or crackling sounds.
- The lights move astonishingly fast, up to over 100,000 mph.
- Indigenous Arctic cultures feature the lights prominently in their mythologies and traditions.
- Auroral science is a specialty field with research observatories worldwide studying the phenomenon.
- In 1989, a solar storm blacked out the entire Canadian province of Quebec in seconds.
- Seeing the magical northern lights is a top bucket list goal for travelers and skywatchers worldwide.
The northern lights have inspired awe, myths and science throughout human history. Their beauty and mystery continue to captivate people lucky enough to witness them.