What are the Northern Lights? History of Aurora Borealis - ORCHIDS
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Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis): What Are They?

Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis): What Are They?

“A brightness like that of daytime shone unbroken from the east to the north.” No, this is not a quote from any of H.G.Wells’ science-fiction novels. This is what “The Annals of Saint Bertin” has recorded as a statement of the soldiers in 859 about the Aurora Borealis. Do you know what Aurora Borealis or Northern lights are? Though a magical show of these colourful lights has mesmerised humanity for ages, this is a violent event. Energised particles from the Sun slam into the Earth’s upper atmosphere at speeds of up to 45 million mph (72 million kph), but mother earth is determined not to yield before this violence. So, the planet’s magnetic field protects us from the onslaught. However, these lights have been the point of great wonder for everyone for ages. People come from all over the world to see the beauty of these lights. 

What Are the Northern Lights?

Dancing Northern Lights in the Sky

The ways experts have been trying to find the mystery behind the Bermuda Triangle. They conducted grave and detailed research to determine the reason for these northern aurora lights. In a nutshell, their study confirmed that the Sun becomes too angry sometimes and starts with a massive storm. These storms give out humongous electricity-charged particles on the Sun’s surface. Being afraid of the Sun, these particles want to run away millions of miles.

Meanwhile, they collide with our Earth. Though Earth disagrees with taking them in, the planet’s magnetic field wants to befriend some of them. Therefore, they attract them towards the north and south poles into the atmosphere. Hence, aurora activities are concentrated at the magnetic poles. “We call this physical ‘excitation’, but it’s very much like heating a gas and making it glow,”  explained Royal Observatory astronomer Tom Kerss as northern lights reason. 

The History of the Northern Lights

Think of colourful lights dancing across the sky and people who do not know the reason behind it. What great potential for enticing stories these lights had, and they did so. Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei coined the term “Aurora Borealis” where the aurora is the Roman goddess of dawn, and the Boreas is the God of the north wind. Galileo mistook these beautiful northern lights as the sunlight reflecting from the atmosphere. 

Numerous nordic myths found their origin in polar lights. Some considered them a message from God, while others believed the lights had terrible omens. Stories about Northern lights are so appealing that some communities still do not get out of their houses when the lights are in the sky. 

For the Sami, the indigenous Finno-Ugric clan, northern lights can chop one’s head off, while Finlanders believe these lights are fire foxes who play across the sky. There is a difference in belief between Iceland and the Greenland community as well. While the former consider the lights ease the pain of childbirth, the latter people believe that the lights are the children who died during the childbirth. People in Norway believe that these lights are the maidens who went to heaven. 

Northern Lights V/s Southern Lights

Just like a coin is not made without two sides, a planet is incomplete without two hemispheres. So, when there are Northern Lights, you can also find Southern Lights. The Northern Lights are known as Aurora Borealis, while the Southern Lights’ name is Aurora Australis. The same play of lights is shown in two poles. 

According to astronomer Billy Teets, the director of Dyer Observatory at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, “These particles are deflected towards the poles by Earth’s magnetic field and interact with our atmosphere, depositing energy and causing the atmosphere to fluoresce.

Every type of atom or molecule in the atmosphere radiates its unique set of colours. With the presence of Nitrogen and Oxygen near the poles, red and green coloured light is scattered in the atmosphere. That’s how we can see green and red swirls and bands of light in the sky.

Where Can We See Northern Lights?

As you can understand how magical these lights are, people come to see these dancing lights from every corner of the world. Though sometimes Londoners can see the lights with a clear sky, the best place to see northern lights is extreme North or South. Some of the best places to see the Northern lights are:

  • Ilulissat, Greenland
  • Reykjavik, Iceland
  • Tromso, Norway
  • Swedish Lapland
  • Rovaniemi, Swedish Lapland
  • Yukon, Canada

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Why are the northern lights green?

Answer: The colours in northern lights come from the gases available there. The presence of Oxygen is the reason behind the green colour. 

2. How often do the northern lights happen?

Answer: Though the Northern Lights are there every time and every season of the year, they are most visible around the equinoxes in March and September. 

3. Can we see northern lights in India?

Answer: No. India is far from both the South and North pole. 

4. Do the Northern Lights make a sound?

Answer: People who experienced this event have stated that there is a faint clapping, rustling, or popping sound while Northern lights are active. 

Also Read…

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