Lights Dancing in the Sky

What are the Northern Lights

The official name for the Northern Lights is Aurora Borealis. They light up the sky in the Northern Hemisphere above the magnetic North Pole. The Northern Lights are a natural light display in the sky that is created by the Solar Wind as it is passing Earth.

Aurora Australius is the official name for the Southern Lights. The Southern Lights are not as well known as the Northern Lights. A large portion of the area where the Southern Lights are visible is Antarctica and the Southern Ocean where few people live.

The Southern Lights  in the Southern Hemisphere are almost identical to the Northern Lights. The interaction between the gases in the atmosphere and the Solar Wind create the dancing lights in the sky at the North and South Poles.

Northern Lights in Alaska  USGS

Watching the Northern Lights

People living close enough to the magnetic North Pole have watch the Northern Lights for thousands of years. The Ancient Chinese and Greek people wrote about the Northern Lights. The Eskimo's and Scandinavian people have told oral stories about the Northern Lights for hundreds of years. 

Today, people living in Europe can travel to the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, and Finland to view the lights. Northern Norway is a favorite place for people living in Europe to view the lights. Guided tours and self drive tours are available in Iceland.

People living in North American can visit Fairbanks and Nome Alaska to view the lights. Canada's Northwest Territories have places where you can watch the Northern Lights. The best months to watch the Aurora Borealis in these areas is February, March, September and October. 

Naming Aurora Borealis

Pierre Gassendi in 1621 named the glowing lights in the sky.  Aurora is the Roman goddess of dawn. Borealis is the Greek word for the north wind. Gassendi chose those two words because the Northern Lights are most active late at night or early in the morning when there is a new moon.

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The 11 year sunspot cycle

Intense solar activity creates large magnetic storms on the Sun during the peak of the eleven-year sunspot cycle.  The electrons and protons in the Solar Wind are energy particles that increase during large magnetic storms on the Sun.

The Solar Wind takes two days to reach the Earth after the peak of the sunspot cycle. When the Solar Wind collides with gases in the Earth's atmosphere radiation is emitted as light. The electrons and protons in the gases are heated. As the electrons and protons cool they produce billions of tiny flashes of light that fills the night sky with the  Northern Lights.

the Northern Lights

The Northern Lights are located from 80 km  to 640 km (50 to 400 miles) above the Earth. They can last for several hours filling the sky with glowing and dancing curtains of green, pink, yellow and orange lights. Green is the most common aurora color and red is the rarest. Most of the time the Auroras last about 30 minutes.

Viewing the Southern Lights

There are few places to view the Southern Lights because South Pole is above  the continent of Antarctica is surrounded by water. Most people in Antarctica are researchers and it would be very dangerous to camp on the ice on the continent to view the lights. Stewart Island in New Zealand and the Falkland Islands are two places where the Southern Lights can be viewed by people that want to  see the Southern Lights while on land.


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