Aurora Borealis

Lights in Motion: Aurora of Denali (Watch Fullscreen HD)

Note: This Embedded video resides on the official Denali National Park YouTube channel

Aurora Borealis
Aurora Borealis


The Northern Lights

The Northern Lights and Aurora Borealis are names for a phenomenon that technically occurs all around the world, but specifically refers to visible lights usually seen only in the northernmost parts of the world. With the extended daylight in the summer months, the Northern Lights are best viewed in the darker months of winter. The Northern Lights are truly a mystifying spectacle, dazzling both visitor and resident alike with their bright colors, wispy movements, and the sheer brilliance and presence they have in the skies.

Time lapse of the aurora in Fairbanks by Josh Spice, Park Ranger at the Fairbanks Alaska Centers, in September, 2011.

The Science Behind It

The Northern Lights certainly can seem a bit alien at times, and many stories assign them some sort of mystical origin. In actuality, they begin at the sun. What one is seeing while watching the beautiful green, red, or blue lights is charged particles (typically electrons, but occasionally protons as well) colliding with the gases in our atmosphere. The resulting aurora's color depends on which gas the particles collide with. Blue aurora results from a collision with molecular nitrogen, Green with molecular oxygen, and Red comes from a collision with atomic oxygen, which only exists very high in our atmosphere. These charged particles are shed by the sun during sun spot activity, which means Aurora frequencies are vastly increased whenever there is high sunspot activity.

Though there is an understanding of their origins, there is still very much that we don't understand about the Northern Lights. For instance, during particularly intense Auroral activity, certain parts of the world might experience electronic equipment malfunctions, and can suffer massive power outages. On the other hand, Auroral activity can actually help electronic gear depending on where you're located. Many transmitting devices can function off of Auroral currents alone, such as radios and phones. In other words, these electronics can run off of AURORA POWER.

A famous instance of this occurred on September 2, 1859, when two telegraph operators (one in Boston, the other in Portland, Maine) had a conversation for approximately two hours without the use of any power source other than that of the Auroral activity.

Cultures around the world speculate the origins of the Northern Lights. Many different people believed that the Northern Lights were the spirits of the dead dancing in the heavens. Native cultures tell tales of people who whistled at the lights and were taken away by them. In older Norse cultures, the lights were thought to be the trails of various gods and goddesses traveling in the sky. Early Roman mythology identified the Aurora as the glow from strange other-worldly caves in the sky.

Check out the Geophysical Institute's Aurora Forecast to find out the current aurora forecast

You can learn more about the science of the Northern Lights at the NASA website

Note: This Embedded video resides on the official NASA YouTube channel