The Illuminated Skies
Have you ever gazed up at the night sky and been mesmerized by the dance of colors? If you’re lucky, you might have witnessed one of nature’s most awe-inspiring phenomena—the auroras. This stunning light show has been captivating humans for centuries and continues to draw crowds from around the world. But what exactly are the auroras, and why do they occur? Join us as we uncover the secrets behind one of the most breathtaking sights in the world.
In the Northern Hemisphere, it’s commonly known as the northern lights or aurora borealis, while in the Southern Hemisphere, it’s called the southern lights or aurora australis.
The northern lights shine above Bear Lake. Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska.
Italian astronomer, Galileo Galilei, is credited with coining the name “aurora borealis” in 1619, inspired by the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek god of the north wind, Boreas. However, the earliest record of the northern lights dates back even further, to 2600 B.C. in ancient Chinese texts.
Ancient cultures like the Eskimos and Native Americans believed that the lights were spirits playing with a walrus head, while the Vikings believed the phenomenon was light reflecting off the armor of the Valkyrie, supernatural maidens who guided warriors to the afterlife.
For centuries, the auroras were a mystery to scientists and the general public alike. It wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that Norwegian scientist Kristian Birkeland proposed a groundbreaking theory explaining the science behind this mesmerizing phenomenon.
What causes the auroras? Short answer? The Sun. The northern and southern lights are the result of the interaction between the Earth’s magnetic field and charged particles from the sun’s atmosphere. These energetic particles travel through space on the solar wind and enter the Earth’s magnetic field. As they collide with oxygen atoms and nitrogen molecules in the Earth’s atmosphere, electrons return to their initial, lower energy state, releasing photons or light particles that create the spectacular display of colorful light that we know as auroras. Each glowing aurora represents billions of individual collisions and illuminates Earth’s magnetic field lines.
While the northern lights are a mesmerizing sight that every astronomy enthusiast and traveler desires to see, catching a glimpse of them can be quite challenging. Although they appear frequently, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, the chances of spotting them depend on being in the right location at the right time.
For those hoping to witness the northern lights, the best place to be is the “auroral zone,” which is roughly a 1,550-mile (2,500-kilometers) radius around the North Pole. This region is where the auroras are most commonly observed, although, during intense solar storms, the phenomenon can sometimes extend further south. The best time of year to catch a glimpse of the aurora is between September and April, from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. And to optimize your chances of seeing the aurora, it’s recommended to be as far away from city lights as possible while within the auroral zone. It’s also important to check the moon phases and local weather forecasts, as a bright full moon or cloudy skies can hinder your chances of spotting the awe-inspiring lights.
The southern lights are a less flashy version of the northern lights. You can see them any time of the year, but more likely from May to August and in September during the spring equinox. They are seen best from the southernmost lands like Tasmania, New Zealand, and Antarctica. Your best chance of seeing this phenomenon is going as far south as possible—which means Tasmania.
The southern lights above the Indian Ocean, 2017. Photo taken from the International Space Station.
Witnessing the auroras is a unique experience everyone should have on their bucket list. Despite the effort it takes to see them, the beauty and magic of the northern and southern lights are worth it. And remember, if you’re ever feeling down, just let the auroras remind you that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel (or rather, the magnetic field).
“I have been as sincere a worshipper of Aurora as the Greeks.” —Henry David Thoreau
“And on Earth, the aurora borealis and australis serve as intermittent reminders of how nice it is to have a protective atmosphere.” ―Neil DeGrasse Tyson
“Not just beautiful, though—the stars are like the trees in the forest, alive and breathing. And they’re watching me.” —Haruki Murakami
“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” —Neil Armstrong
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