It is called the Northern Lights or the Aurora Borealis because it is located in the Northern Hemisphere. The natural phenomenon, which has fascinated thousands of people worldwide, has a counterpart in the Southern Hemisphere, the Aurora Australis. The name is a combination of Aurora, the Greek goddess of dawn and Boreas, god of the north wind. Pierre Gassendi, a French astronomer in the 17th century gave the name to Aurora Borealis but the phenomenon had been observed as early as 700 AD.
The dancing lights are bright and colourful, with pink and pale green the most common although many have observed the lights to have shades of violet, blue, yellow and red. The northern lights appear in various forms, in scattered patches of clouds of light that form several patterns such as shooting rays, rippling curtains, arcs and streamers, all lighting up the northern skies above the pole with a glow so eerie like something straight out of a sci-fi/alien movie.
What causes the auroral display?
Beautiful as the northern lights may seem, they are actually caused by the collisions of the charged particles from the atmosphere of the sun and the gaseous particles scattered in the earth’s atmosphere, with the type of gas particles released affecting the colour variations. You could say that the northern lights are a result of the fallout when there are strong solar storms.
Best times to watch for auroral displays
Auroral activities are cyclic according to researchers and the peak of activity occurs every 11 years, and 2013 is the next peak period. Spring and winter in the northern hemisphere are good seasons to see the northern lights as the frequency of clear nights interspersed with long period of darkness give viewers several opportunities to watch the spectral display, especially so at midnight. From August until April are the good times to see the auroral displays in Alaska.
Best places to watch the lights
Scientists have discovered that the northern lights and the southern lights are like mirror images and occur at the same time, with their colors and shapes almost similar. Depending on its size, the best places to view the northern lights are in Alaska and the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and the Yukon in northwestern Canada. The northern lights can also be seen over northern Siberia’s coastal waters, Norway’s northern coast, in Iceland and Greenland’s southern tip, as well as in Finland and Sweden.
Length of auroral display
The spectacular display of the northern lights varies. It can be as short as ten minutes in some instances and at times it can last for the whole night, with the peak lasting from one to two hours. Everything depends on the magnitude of the solar wind that occurs. It also affects the size of the auroral display. The sun’s coronal holes regularly produce good auroras, but the grand ones that can be seen in most parts of the northern hemisphere are caused by solar flares and the coronal mass ejections, those large bubbles of gas released by the sun with such force.