• Shreya Rathi

What are the Northern Lights?

The movie, The Sky is Pink, has a very famous dialogue: “The sky can be any color you want it to be.”

This is not just a mere movie quote, rather it is factually totally correct! Northern Lights -- you must have already heard by now -- are gorgeous bands of colors flashing across the night sky. While it is freakishly beautiful, it has some very weird mythological stories associated with it too!

In Norse mythology, it is believed that these lights were the fire bridges to the sky -- that was built by their gods themselves. In Greenland, people believe that the lights were the spirits of children that died during childbirth, dancing across the sky. The Greeks believed that aurora (ancient word for Northern Lights) was the sister of Helios and Seline, the sun and moon respectively and that she raced across the early morning sky in her multi-colored chariot to alert her siblings to the dawning of a new day!!

While you can find multiple of these mythological tales online, science has luckily developed enough to find the real reason why these happen. We all know, our Earth has a magnetic field (it’s responsible for pointing the compass to the north, just in case if you forgot) It causes auroras too!

We know that the Sun, in the middle of our Solar System, is a giant ball of fire that has a magnetic field of its own. Now, the magnetic field of the Sun is way more complicated than our little planet’s. Its field comprises not just only lines but rather it distorts and twists in certain regions. When these fields come together, it bursts and creates a larger field - which is called a sunspot. These sunspots are present in a variety of sizes throughout the star - some spots even as big as our own planet Earth!

Now what is very unusual about these regions, is the production of what is called a solar flare/solar wind. And these aren’t your basic everyday hot breeze. It is very very strong. If these flares are in the path of our planet, it gets caught in the planet’s magnetic field, not allowing them to fly past by it. The magnetic field interacts with the flares and causes the atoms in our sky to excite.

But what do you even mean by excitation?

The atoms have a very special property where its electrons can move to a higher energy orbit and when it comes back to its normal low-level energy orbit, it radiates energy! And a whole lot of it. This is what causes auroras.

Did you know? These lights are called aurora borealis in the north and aurora australis in the south.

When you do see it, you would be astonished to see that it takes beautiful shapes too, such as an arc, a spiral, or curtains of light. Not just that, it is in a variety of colors too -- pink, green, yellow, blue, violet, and occasionally orange and white! It’s when the atoms from the flares react with oxygen it causes green and yellow; nitrogen causes red, violet, and occasional blues!

You can see these lights the best in countries near the North Pole -- the nations bordering the Arctic Ocean -- Canada and Alaska, Scandinavian countries, Iceland, Greenland, and Russia. But strong displays of the lights can extend down into more southerly latitudes in the United States. And of course, the lights have a counterpart at Earth’s south polar regions.

You know which countries to add to your bucket list now :))

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