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What are the Northern Lights? Defining the Aurora Borealis

What are the Northern lights? Otherwise known as the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights aren’t magic — despite what you might believe. 

These unique polar lights are more science than mystery, and they happen because of electrically-charged collisions between particles. 

As these particles enter the atmosphere of the earth, they cause a chemical reaction to deliver an incredible array of dancing colors. 

Most common above the magnetic poles of the Southern and Northern hemispheres, the Northern Lights have perplexed and enthralled human beings for hundreds of years. 

Before you take a trip to Iceland or visit Norway to see the lights in action yourself, why not learn a thing or two about the science behind these other-worldly light shows?

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What causes the Northern Lights?

When we refer to the “Northern Lights”, we’re talking about the Aurora Borealis, the lights appearing in the Northern part of the world. There’s also a southern version called the “Aurora Australis”, though it seems to get less attention. 

The Northern Lights are the result of chemical reactions in the earth’s atmosphere. Depending on the kinds of particles in the atmosphere, the lights can appear in a variety of colors, though pink, green, and blue are often the most common. 

The natural event can appear in many forms, from scattered clouds of colors, to arcs of rippling color. 

So, what causes the Northern Lights?

The Northern Lights or “Aurora Borealis”, is the result of gaseous particles in the atmosphere of the Earth colliding with charged particles streaming down from the atmosphere of the sun. 

The variations of color depend on the kind of gas particles colliding, with the green and yellow shades often produced by oxygen molecules. 

All-red Polar Lights come from high-altitude oxygen at heights of around 200 miles, while the yellow green happens at a lower range, usually about 60 miles above the earth. Nitrogen is the gas responsible for purples, and blues. 

What exactly are the Northern Lights?

Experts have been studying the Northern Lights and accompanying “sunspot” activity since the 1800s. However, astronomers like Galileo Galilei and Pierre Gassendi referenced these lights too, way back in the 1500s and 1600s. 

It’s was only in the 1900s when scientists began to develop a better idea of what the Northern Lights really are and how they work. 

In the 1950s, we learned the electrons and protons from the sun arrive at the earth due to “solar wind”. As you may already know, the temperature of the sun is in the millions of degrees (Celsius). 

At a temperature as high as this, it’s common for molecules to collide and explosions to take place. When an explosion happens, free protons and electrons escape the sun’s atmosphere and escape through the magnetic field, towards the earth. 

The charged particles arriving at the earth’s magnetic field usually aren’t visible. However, thanks to the slightly weaker fields at the Northern and Southern poles, it’s possible to see some of the particles entering the earth’s atmosphere and collide with the gas particles we have here. 

Both the Southern Lights and the Polar Lights work in a similar way. 

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Where can you see the Northern Lights?

The Northern Lights are most visible towards the North Pole, where the magnetic field of the earth is weaker. The lights, known as the Aurora Borealis in the North, are common the further you get from human civilization. 

Like most astral phenomenon it’s easier to see the lights when light pollution from towns and cities don’t get in the way. 

Because of the irregularly shaped holes above the Southern and Northern magnetic poles, the lights can spread as far as the Northern parts of Canada, across the Yukon and even to Alaska. 

It’s also possible to see displays in the southern regions of Iceland, where you can find many tour companies offering trips designed to help you see the Northern Lights. 

Greenland and Norway are also excellent places to visit if you want to see the Aurora Borealis, although it’s best to visit the Northern coast of Norway for the best view. 

Notably, researchers exploring the workings of the Northern Lights believe there are cycles to the activity. You can usually see the best views every 11 years or so, making the next perfect period around 2024. 

Winter is also a good time in general to go viewing the Northern Lights, as the long periods of darkness in Scandinavia and the Nordic region offer more opportunities to view auroral displays. 

Midnight is often recommended as the best time of the day to go spotting. 

What is the Aurora Borealis? Legends and stories

As such a magical experience, it’s probably no wonder the Northern Lights feature in a lot of Scandinavian myths and stories. 

In Sweden, people look at the presence of the lights as a sign of good news on the horizon. Forefathers of Swedish cultures believed the lights were gifts from the gods that were sending light and warmth during darker days of the year. 

In medieval times in Rome, on the other hand, the Romans had the opposite belief, thinking the lights were signs of impending doom or disaster. The Romans said the lights were a sign of famine or war to come. 

The Northern Lights are a common component of Norse mythology, with some lends suggesting the lights were reflections of the shields and armours of the Valkyrie. 

The Vikings celebrated the lights, assuming they meant the warriors of Valhalla were coming to collect the fallen warriors of the battlefield. 

In some parts of Norse mythology, the Northern Lights are also said to be part of the “Bifrost bridge”. This glowing arch apparently leads people fallen in battle to their final resting place in Viking mythology. 

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Quick facts about the Polar Lights

We may know about the science of the Northern Lights today than we once did, however these glowing skies are still shrouded in mystery for many people. 

Here are some quick facts to help you learn a little more about this incredible natural phenomenon. 

  • The first sighting of the Northern Lights is apparently attributed to both Pierre Gassendi and Galileo Galilei, who both witnessed the lights on the 12th of September, 1621. Earlier sightings may have been possible, though we have no way of knowing for certain. 
  • Scientists believe Auroras have appeared over the earth for thousands of years — perhaps longer. 
  • The height of a display can vary from around 620 miles high, all the way down to around 80km. The higher the display, the more likely it is it will feature rare colors. 
  • Auroras like the Northern Lights are generally more frequent (and more impressive) during periods of high sunspot activity. You should check your solar calendar to see when the sunspots should be stronger in your region. 
  • Auroral storms once circled the Arctic all the way from New Hampshire to Oregon in the 1900s, according to some news reports. 
  • All over the world, various cultures have created myths and stories to explain the northern lights. Some believe these lights are signs of Gods or mystical creatures moving across the sky. The American Intuit believe they’re a sign the spirits of the dead are playing with the head of a walrus. 
  • Yellowknife in Canada is one of the most popular tourist destinations for Northern Lights spotting, following regions like Norway and Iceland. 
  • Some people claim they’ve heard unique noises when spotting the Northern Lights, although it’s notoriously difficult to capture any evidence of this. 

Of course, although reading about the Northern Lights is a great way to brush up on your scientific knowledge, the best way to understand these lights is to see them for yourself. 

Next time you’re planning a trip to one of the magnetic poles, or you’re visiting a place nearby, like Iceland or Norway, check out the solar activity in the region. 

There are plenty of organised trips you can join, to help you make the most of your visit.

Many tourist destinations commonly catering to Northern Lights lovers can even share maps and calendars to show you when and where you can see the best displays. 

Check out the Aurora forecast for Scandinavia if you want help figuring out when and where to check out this incredible natural phenomenon.  

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