Updated: Jan 5
The Aurora Borealis, or The Northern Lights, is nature's light show. Those lucky enough to observe this phenomenon will witness bands of blues, greens, reds, and many other colors dancing in waves across the sky. One can’t help but wonder “what is going on to create this spectacular light show?” In this lesson we will go behind the scenes and learn what causes The Aurora Borealis, where the best places and times are to see it, and how the lights are evidence of one of Earth's life sustaining qualities.
First let’s talk about what is happening to make The Aurora Borealis. The first thing is that the sun creates something called solar wind. Solar wind is when the sun's most outer layer, the corona reaches 2,000,000 degrees Fahrenheit. At this heat the sun can’t hold on to the rapidly moving particles that make it up and those particles stream away from the star. As this solar wind drifts away into space, made up of charged particles known as protons and electrons , it eventually comes into contact with Earth. Earth’s magnetic field then pulls those protons and electrons to the North and South Poles. When the particles collide with the atmosphere they get “excited” and release energy, as they “calm down”, in the form of bands of light known as The Aurora Borealis, or The Aurora Australis if at The South Pole.
Where can you see this stunning show of light and color? Well, the most obvious places are The Poles however, both have frigid temperatures and harsh terrain. Some great conditions needed to best see the lights are little to no light pollution. You also want to go at the best time of year from late September to late March (in the Northern Hemisphere) because these months are darker at night. Here are three of the best places to see The Northern Lights and why. (1) Fairbanks, Alaska - This spot sits near Earth’s north magnetic pole which is the most common place for Aurora activity and if you live in the U.S there’s no need for a passport! (2) Yellowknife, Canada - Yellowknife is the capital of Canada’s northwest territories and is also known as the Aurora capital of North America. While you will need a passport, you may still get to see a stunning light show. (3) Jukkasjärvi (Juk-Kas-Jar-vi), Sweden - The best time to see The Northern Lights in Sweden are the darkest months from December to March. This small town sits 125 miles away from The Arctic Circle, and if you want a further experience you can book a reservation at the world famous Ice Hotel. Though temperatures sit at a not so pleasant -8 degrees Fahrenheit the beds are very comfy and there is a bell to wake you up for The Northern Lights. Very exciting!
The Aurora Borealis and The Aurora Australis are physical proof that Earth’s magnetic field is there. Without that magnetic field protecting us from the sun's solar winds, those same solar winds would tear away Earth’s atmosphere destroying all life on Earth! Unfortunately, the magnetic field is slowly dissipating and will be gone many, many, many years from now. The good news is that the Earth’s magnetic field still stands, giving us the wonderful Northern and Southern Lights and protecting us in the process!
So what did we learn about The Aurora Borealis? We learned how the Aurora Borealis forms, where the best places and times to see it are, and how it is a physical manifestation of one of Earth’s life supporting qualities. Now that you know about this amazing light show, hopefully you will be able to plan a trip, and instead of wondering what sends light dancing across the sky, you can dance along. What was the most interesting thing you learned? I hope you had as much fun learning about The Aurora Borealis as much as I did writing about it!
Question 1: What is solar wind made of?
Correct: Particles from the sun called protons and electrons
Wrong: The Force
Wrong: Particles from the sun called dust and neutrons
Wrong: Gusts of air from the sun's atmosphere
Question 2: In Sweden you can find the world famous _____.
Correct: Ice Hotel
Wrong: Five Star Hotel
Wrong: Ice Castle
Wrong: First Walt Disney Character
Question 3: If Earth’s magnetic field disappeared what would happen?
Correct: Solar winds would tear away Earth's atmosphere
Wrong: Solar winds would increase global warming
Wrong: An even more powerful Death Star would blow Earth up Wrong: Solar winds would tear away Earth's biosphere