Q. Scientifically, how does the Aurora Borealis work? What makes it change color? Can you see them all year long? -Hanna
A. Well, Hanna, this is an interesting one. Maybe I find it so because I am personally fascinated by the northern lights. Okay. First a sort-of-scientifical reason, then a personal anecdotal type of story..
The aurora borealis, or northern lights, are streamers, curtains, or bands of colored lights in the arctic and antartic skies at certain times. Sometimes you can even see them in some of the northern lower 48 states, as well as central Europe.
In the antarctic, they are called the aurora australis, or the southern lights. They discovered in rather recent times that the very same pattern in playing at the south pole, when it is playing at the north pole, only in a mirror image sort of way. It was discovered accidently when a plane took pictures of it at the southern pole the same day and hour that another plane was taking pictures at the north pole. When all this data and photos was fed into a central location, it was noted. They then took pictures of the next auroras, at both poles, on purpose and sure enough, the mirror images were discovered.
Of course they happen in daytime too – whenever the needed activity of the sun takes place, but they aren’t visible if it is very light.
Finland is the best place for viewing the aurora and they have gone to great lengths to study it, building an observatory, etc. Folklore abounds as to the reason for the display. In Finland it is called foxfire, from an ancient folk tale about the fox starting fires, or spraying snow with his brush like tail. In English, the word ‘foxfire’ is a luminescent glow emitted by certain types of fungus growing on rotten wood. In the north of Alaska, the natives call it The Dance of the Dead.
Now for the real reason. The truth is that the sun is the father of the aurora. The sun gives off high energy particles, called ions. They travel into space at speeds of up to 1200 kilometres per second. A stream of this is called a plasma. This stream of plasma is also called a solar wind.
When the solar wind reaches the edge of the earth’s magnetic field, some of the particles are trapped by our magnetic field and follow the lines of magnetic force down into our ionosphere, beginning to glow beautifully in colors of red, green, blue or violet. They are constantly in motion because of the interacting of the solar wind and our magnetic force.
Scientists are studying to see if their energy might be used for useful purposes. Far as I’m concerned, they already serve a useful purpose. They are food for the soul!
Once in the ’70’s, we were living in a log cabin, on a rise of ground, in Copper River Country. One frigid winter night, at minus 50F, my husband Jim decided to bring in one more armful of wood from the pile outside the door, before heading to bed. Jim had set up late reading and feeding the barrel stove. The rest of us were in bed. Jim came hurrying back in and woke me, saying, ” Quick, get the kids! You have to come outside!” We shook the kids awake and helped them into their parkas and bunny boots, and with Jim, carrying Mariella, the youngest, we went outside. The entire sky, from horizon to horizon, was full of rippling curtains of light. Usually, the auroras we had seen were mostly greenish colored, and sometimes just bands of green. This was technicolor and stereo sound! Yes, they were audibly popping and crackling as they swept across the sky in all the colors of which they are capable. We soon had to flee to the warmth of the cabin, but oh how our souls were fed that night! The unforgettable extravaganza of sound and color, reduced by comparison, all the manmade fireworks of earth to the level of a swinging flashlight!
Take care, Hanna, and let me know if you wonder about anything else. I’m full of answers, and possibly a bit of baloney! -Bonnie J.