Current Event / Northern Lights / Observational Astronomy

Northern Lights – What the heck is that?

 

Photo by fellow club member and Astro Babe Peg Zenko.
Photo by fellow club member Peg Zenko. See more of her photos at www.tangentphotos.com

Northern lights – those beautiful green and red ribbons of dancing light that show up in the northern sky at night. I’m frequently asked – What are they? Before I answer, I ask them what they think.

I get some pretty interesting answers. One person’s theory is that they’re caused by pollution. Another thought  it’s the reflection of light off the polar ice cap. I’m pretty sure someone’s theory involved aliens and a government conspiracy.

Thank goodness my hubby was out at his brother’s house in the country one night when the northern lights were doing a dance across the sky. They looked as though the green ribbons were reaching down and touching the horizon. My brother-in-law was a little unnerved by the show until my hubby (who actually does listen to me) explained to him what they were.

The coolest show I’ve ever seen was about ten years ago, when I stood mesmerized in my neighbors driveway (too many trees by me) watching what looked like red ink being poured into the earth’s atmosphere. If I didn’t know what I was seeing, I may have been a little worried about what was happening!

So – in a nutshell – here’s what causes them: It starts with a coronal mass ejection (CME) from the sun, essentially a very large solar flare. Particles from the flare get caught up in our atmosphere and are attracted to the poles (both north and south). These particles are electrically charged and react with the gases in our atmosphere, bringing us the northern lights! For a more detailed explanation you can go to http://www.northernlightscentre.ca/northernlights.html.

So no worries – the next time you happen to catch sight of the northern lights remain calm! Enjoy the show, but first call your astronomy loving friends so they don’t miss out!!

Amy

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