Breathtaking Beauty of the Northern Lights


The Aurora Borealis, commonly known as the Northern Lights, are quite mysterious, but completely explainable by modern science.  The magnificent auroral displays have been captivating humans for centuries.  Each night is unique with the skies filling with many different colors.  Pink and pale green are the most common colors observed.  However, they have also been photographed in various shades of red, yellow, green, blue, and violet/purple.  No two observations or nights are ever the same.  It’s the randomness that adds a sense of mystery to this natural artistry.

Aurora Borealis was named after the Roman Goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek name for the north wind, Boreas, by Pierre Gassendi in 1621.   In Greek the winds had different names, depending on which direction they came from.  Boreas was the name for the northern wind, Notus for the southern wind, Zephyrus for the western wind, and Euro for the eastern wind.   In modern language, the word auroral is the adjective form of aurora, which is now formally defined as a natural electrical phenomenon characterized by the appearance of streamers of reddish or greenish light in the sky, usually near the northern or southern magnetic pole.

Giant Sunspot – photo image via NASA/SDO

The Sunspot Connection

Our sun has multiple active magnetic fields, which distort and twist as it rotates on its axis.  At times, these fields become laced tighter and tighter until they finally break; the resulting phenomena, seen from a distance, are sunspots.   During natural temperature fluctuations on the surface of the sun, particles from the sunspot regions escape and carry plasma toward earth.  When those particles enter our atmosphere, they collide with gaseous particles already floating around.  The collisions result in different colors, depending on what particles were impacted.  A collision with an oxygen molecules results in a pale yellowish-green lightwave.   The particles coming from our sun are highly charged.  It’s the reason why they gravitate toward the magnetic poles of earth rather than the equator.

The sunspots that cause the best light shows occur about every 11 years on average.  It has been as short as 9 years and as long as 14 years since measurements were first recorded.  Credit for the finding goes to  Samuel Schwabe who discovered the 11-year average ebb and flow of sunspots in 1843.  Since then, predicting when the next sunspot cycle will appear, and how strong it will be, has taken on a life of its own.  Friendly competition has even spread beyond the scientific community.

The current sunspot period is predicted to end in the middle or later part of 2019.  There are already predictions that the next cycle will be weak, with average results.  However those same analysts are leaning towards proclaiming a future cycle (2022-2027) to be awesome, so make your travel plans now.

Where To See the Northern Lights and their Southern Twin

Most people may not be aware of the existence of the Southern Lights.  The Aurora Borealis only appears in the northern hemisphere.  A similar phenomena occurs in the south and it is called Aurora Australis, or  the Southern Lights.  In this case, Australis is the Latin word for South.  Even though it sounds similar, the name has no connection to Australia. The Southern Lights can only be seen from Antarctica, Chile, New Zealand, and the southern tip of Australia.  This  limited viewing area is the likely reason why they don’t get the attention the Northern Lights do.

The Northern Lights have a much wider viewing area.  The best  places to watch the lights are in the northwestern parts of Canada, particularly the Yukon, Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and especially Alaska.  Other viewing areas outside of North America are southern Greenland, Iceland, northern Norway, Scandinavia, and across the northern part of Russia and the Arctic Circle.  The long winter nights are considered the best viewing time of the year.

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