Posted on March 7th, 2023

Out Of This World – The Auroras

Magical threads of light dance across the sky. Twists of blue, green, red and purple twine, dance and interlace in a pattern of ethereal grace.

The Aurora is a natural phenomenon that has entranced humans for thousands of years. For as long as humans have been able to see this extraterrestrial display, they have been captivated by its otherworldly dance in the sky.

How exactly does this celestial light show come to be? They are, in fact, a result of Earth’s magnetic field interacting with energized particles emitted by the sun. These particles collide with the magnetic field and are drawn towards the poles of the earth. As the energized particles coalesce at the poles, they come together and ionize, causing the atmosphere to incandesce. The polar light patterns can appear as curtains, rays, spirals or flickers that sweep across the sky.

The Aurora Borealis streaks across the Greenland sky. (Photo by Visit Greenland)

Light displays that occur in the northern hemisphere are known as the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights. The particles that make their way to the southern pole are called the Aurora Australis, or the Southern Lights. The word “aurora” comes from the Greek goddess Aurora, who presided over the dawn and traveled east to west across the sky with the sun each day. In 1619, Galileo coined the term “aurora borealis” by combining the name of the dawn goddess and that of the Greek god of the northern wind, Boreas.

The polar lights typically occur between 60 and 75 degrees north or south in latitude, covering the Arctic and Antarctic circles.  The Northern Lights tend to be better known because the northern auroral zone is closer to land and easier to access. The northern auroral zone includes regions of Canada, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Alaska, Russia and the entirety of Iceland.

Interestingly, because they are located on opposite sides of the globe, the Northern and Southern Lights peak at opposite times of the year – with the Southern Lights from May to August, and the Northern Lights from September to April. Both sets of polar lights are easiest to view in the depths of winter in their respective hemispheres, when the nights are longest and darkest. The strongest auroral displays tend to occur between 9pm and 2am, though peak viewing is between 11pm and midnight.

The earliest suspected record of the Northern Lights is from a 30,000-year-old piece of cave art in France. The earliest confirmed reference of the Northern Lights comes from a Babylonian Cuneiform tablet dated to the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar II during 568/567 BCE. The tablet mentions a strange “red glow” in the night sky. References to the aurora came from East Asia during the same time period.

Despite their transient nature, the polar lights seem to exist beyond the confines of time. Their scintillations have dazzled humankind since time immemorial and will continue to enchant us for eons to come. What a gift it is to be human, to look into the cosmic wonders of the universe and marvel.

Katie Nelson
Geospatial Ninja
(303) 718-7163

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