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The Northern Lights

February 15th, 2010

northern-lights.jpgFew sights on Earth are as impressive as the Northern Lights. Commonly known as the Aurora Borealis, this breathtakingly shimmering display has a counterpart in the southern hemisphere, the Aurora Australis.

Painting the sky with color, the Northern Lights are more visible as one moves toward the higher latitudes. Therefore, if you are close to the North (or South) Pole, your chances of viewing this spectacle are greater than if you are at middle or lower latitudes. People in Alaska stand a greater chance of seeing them than those in Kansas, for example. Furthermore, the time of year influences the intensity and therefore the visibility of this phenomenon. While they may be seen throughout the year, their appearance is more prevalent during the equinoxes. Therefore, cloudless nights in late March or late September will be the most rewarding. And as every amateur astronomer knows, the best viewing occurs far from the light “pollution” emanating from urban areas that often compromises a city’s nighttime skies.

So what exactly causes the Northern Lights, and why would anyone want to see them?

The Northern Lights are essentially an image of the solar wind. The sun sends tremendous clouds of electrically charged particles (ions) toward the Earth at intense speeds. When this plasma reaches the Earth, it interacts with our own magnetic field, actually flowing around the planet.

You can actually simulate the appearance of this by making soap bubbles. When the bubble “matures,” you will see myriad colors swirling around its perimeter. In good lighting, you will see the colors grow more intense until the point when the bubble bursts. Similar to a bar magnet such as one employs in basic science classes, the polar regions have a stronger magnetic force than the rest of the planet. As the solar wind penetrates the magnetosphere, it works its way down to the ionosphere.

At this point, the action is similar to the workings of a florescent or neon light. The charged particles react with other gases in the atmosphere, causing them to glow. The fantastic colors are created by interaction with various gases. For example, oxygen glows green and red; nitrogen emits hues of blue and violet. This is similar in nature to the creation of fireworks. The colors of those big boomers that force “oohs” and “aahs” from Fourth of July participants are caused by burning metallic compounds; for example, blues come from copper and greens come from barium. These lights dance and swirl because of the constantly shifting currents of gas and the varying intensity of the magnetic field.

Interestingly, the Northern Lights create vast amounts of electrical energy, something on the order 30,000 megawatts of electricity per hour. Therefore, when solar activity is at its highest, the aurora glows most intensely. In the late 1970s, they were easily visible as far south as Denver. However, these periods also cause disruptions in power transmissions, television and radio reception, and cell phone communications. (During that same period in the ’70s, a lot of people gave up on citizens’ band (CB) radio because of unreliable performance.) This electrical activity has also encouraged many scientists to speculate on the feasibility of capturing this energy to supply our ever-growing needs.

Finally, in answer to the question of why anyone would care to see the Northern Lights, they are an awe-inspiring natural phenomenon. Aside from their breathtaking beauty, it is humbling to view this spectacle and ponder the insignificance of humans in the wonders of our universe.


This article on the northern lights was supplied to us by Mel MacKaron from Constant Content.


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