Thursday, March 8, 2012

What are the Northern Lights?

What are Northern Lights?

The bright dancing lights of the aurora are actually collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth's atmosphere. The lights are seen above the magnetic poles of the northern and southern hemispheres. They are known as 'Aurora borealis' in the north and 'Aurora australis' in the south..
Auroral displays appear in many colours although pale green and pink are the most common. Shades of red, yellow, green, blue, and violet have been reported. The lights appear in many forms from patches or scattered clouds of light to streamers, arcs, rippling curtains or shooting rays that light up the sky with an eerie glow.

What causes the Northern Lights?

The Northern Lights are actually the result of collisions between gaseous particles in the Earth's atmosphere with charged particles released from the sun's atmosphere. Variations in colour are due to the type of gas particles that are colliding. The most common auroral color, a pale yellowish-green, is produced by oxygen molecules located about 60 miles above the earth. Rare, all-red auroras are produced by high-altitude oxygen, at heights of up to 200 miles. Nitrogen produces blue or purplish-red aurora.

The connection between the Northern Lights and sunspot activity has been suspected since about 1880. Thanks to research conducted since the 1950's, we now know that electrons and protons from the sun are blown towards the earth on the 'solar wind'. (Note: 1957-58 was International Geophysical Year and the atmosphere was studied extensively with balloons, radar, rockets and satellites. Rocket research is still conducted by scientists at Poker Flats, a facility under the direction of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks 

The temperature above the surface of the sun is millions of degrees Celsius. At this temperature, collisions between gas molecules are frequent and explosive. Free electrons and protons are thrown from the sun's atmosphere by the rotation of the sun and escape through holes in the magnetic field. Blown towards the earth by the solar wind, the charged particles are largely deflected by the earth's magnetic field. However, the earth's magnetic field is weaker at either pole and therefore some particles enter the earth's atmosphere and collide with gas particles. These collisions emit light that we perceive as the dancing lights of the north (and the south).

The lights of the Aurora generally extend from 80 kilometres (50 miles) to as high as 640 kilometres (400 miles) above the earth's surface.

Where is the best place to watch the Northern Lights?

Northern Lights can be seen in the northern or southern hemisphere, in an irregularly shaped oval centred over each magnetic pole. The lights are known as 'Aurora borealis' in the north and 'Aurora australis' in the south. Scientists have learned that in most instances northern and southern auroras are mirror-like images that occur at the same time, with similar shapes and colors.

Because the phenomena occurs near the magnetic poles, northern lights have been seen as far south as New Orleans in the western hemisphere, while similar locations in the east never experience the mysterious lights. However the best places to watch the lights (in North America) are in the northwestern parts of Canada, particularly the Yukon, Nunavut, Northwest Territories and Alaska. Auroral displays can also be seen over the southern tip of Greenland and Iceland, the northern coast of Norway and over the coastal waters north of Siberia. Southern auroras are not often seen as they are concentrated in a ring around Antarctica and the southern Indian Ocean.

Areas that are not subject to 'light pollution' are the best places to watch for the lights. Areas in the north, in smaller communities, tend to be best.

Fun Facts about northern lights

  • According to Neil Bone (The aurora: sun-earth interactions, 1996), the term aurora borealis--northern dawn--is jointly credited to have first been used by Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655) and Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), who both witnessed a light display on Sept. 12, 1621. However, Bone also includes a description of the northern lights made 1,000 years prior by Gregory of Tours (538-594.) It included the phrase, "... so bright that you might have thought that day was about to dawn."
  • Auroras have been observed since ancient times.
  • The height of the displays can occur up to 1000 km (620 miles), although most are between 80-120 km.
  • Auroras tend to be more frequent and spectacular during high solar sunspot activity, which cycles over approximately eleven years.
  • Some displays are particularly spectacular and widespread and have been highlighted in news accounts. Examples include auroral storms of August-September, 1859, Feb 11, 1958, (lights 1250 miles wide circled the Arctic from Oregon to New Hampshire) and March 13, 1989, (the whole sky turned a vivid red and the aurora was seen in Europe and North America as far south as Cuba).
  • Legends abound in northern cultures to explain the northern lights. Some North American Inuit call the aurora aqsarniit (“football players”) and say the spirits of the dead are playing football with the head of a walrus. Often legends warn children that the lights might come down and snatch them away.
  • June 1896, Norwegian Kristian Birkeland, the “father of modern auroral science,” suggested the theory that electrons from sunspots triggered auroras.
  • Yellowknife (Northwest Territories, Canada) is the capital for aurora tourism.
  • The earliest known account of northern lights appears to be from a Babylonian clay tablet from observations made by the official astronomers of King Nebuchadnezzar II, 568/567 BC.
  • Some people claim to hear noises associated with the northern lights, but documenting this phenomenon has been difficult.

Northern Lights

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