What are the northern lights?

Across the North, vibrant aurora borealis dance and ripple throughout the sky virtually each evening within the winter.

Most individuals know that the northern lights are a scientific phenomenon occurring up above, however do you actually know what causes them?

CBC explains.

What is the aurora borealis?

The northern lights are attributable to particles — electrons and protons — blasted out from the solar in all instructions and colliding with gases within the Earth’s ambiance.

Those particles journey 150 million kilometres from the solar to achieve Earth, which takes about two to 4 days, in line with James Pugsley, an aurora forecaster with Astronomy North. They are a part of a stream of power referred to as the photo voltaic wind. As the Earth orbits the solar, a portion of these particles collide with the Earth’s magnetic area.

The northern lights over the Takhini River Valley in Yukon. ‘It’s actually, really a scientific marvel,’ says Pugsley. (Mark Kelly)

“A lot of particles, when they reach the magnetic field are deflected away into space, but some become trapped in the magnetic field,” Pugsley mentioned.

The trapped ones are directed towards the north and south magnetic poles — wandering factors on Earth’s floor that transfer attributable to adjustments in its magnetic area. They comply with magnetic area traces and pour into the ambiance.

“There’s this little spark that occurs, this release of energy that we see in the form of light. And so now imagine that overhead there are billions of these tiny little sparks going on in the sequence of light, these little flashes of light are what we see and call aurora,” he mentioned.

“So if you’re living in northern Canada, or northern Scandinavia, northern Russia, around the north magnetic pole, and you look up, what you’re seeing is this waterfall of particles … pouring into the atmosphere.”

‘When we watch that dazzling show of sunshine, it’s truly telling us a narrative,’ says James Pugsley, an aurora forecaster with Astronomy North. (Andrew Pacey/CBC)

Why are they totally different colors?

The Earth’s ambiance is made up of nitrogen, oxygen and different gases, generally often known as air. The colors of the aurora will depend on the fuel molecules the particles are interacting with.

Pugsley says that because the particles get nearer to Earth, the oxygen and nitrogen content material is so thick the particles cannot go a lot additional.

Watch us break down the northern lights:

We all know the aurora borealis are a spectacular present overhead. But do you actually know what causes them? CBC Explains. 4:13

“When we see green in the sky, which is the most common of the colours, green is an indication that a charged particle from the sun is interacting with oxygen,” Pugsley mentioned.

Green is the most typical color as a result of it takes extra power, or a fairly intense occasion, to spark nitrogen.

“When we see blues and purples, generally along the lower edge, we see a really intense, very vibrant purple colour, that’s an indication of that particles interacting with nitrogen.”

How excessive up are the northern lights?

Aurora are between 100 and 500 kilometres above the floor of the planet. To provide you with an thought of how excessive up that’s, the International Space Station orbits the Earth at about 400 kilometres above the floor.

“We have low-Earth-orbit satellites, and the International Space Station, actually cruising across the top of the tallest auroras,” Pugsley mentioned.

The International Space Station and the docked area shuttle Endeavour orbit Earth in May 2011. Aurora are between 100 and 500 kms tall above the floor of the planet. The area station orbits the Earth at about 400 kms above the floor. (Paolo Nespoli/ESA/NASA/Getty Images)

Why do they dance?

Pugsley says the northern lights are usually not simply defined or absolutely understood.

He mentioned one doable clarification is that because the exercise will increase, the magnetic line begins to maneuver, with an inflow of particles breaking apart, “turning on the taps,” or dancing.

The photo voltaic wind usually blows round 400 kilometres per second. But a extremely intense occasion on the solar can result in gusts of as much as 800 kilometres per second.

It tells a good looking scientific story.– James Pugsley, Astronomy North

“That kind of event, along with a lot of other dynamics that go on in the magnetic field, can cause those particles to really pour into the atmosphere,” he mentioned.

“When we watch that dazzling display of light, it’s actually telling us a story. It’s a story that began on the sun, travelled all the way to Earth, had a series of interactions in the magnetic field and led to this beautiful display overhead.”

Why are they extra seen within the North?

If you are at excessive latitudes anyplace on the planet — with entry to clear, darkish skies within the spring, winter and fall, in fact — chances are high each single evening there may be auroral exercise overhead.

The northern lights we see are a small part of the “auroral oval” — an enormous ring or crown of aurora above the Earth’s geomagnetic north pole.

Pugsley says northern places are the “perfect zone” as a result of they’re near the auroral oval. When there may be lively area climate, like a geomagnetic storm (a disturbance of the magnetic area surrounding Earth), it could possibly push the auroral oval like an elastic band additional south. That may end up in northern lights being seen proper throughout the nation and whilst far south because the United States. 

“It’s a very dynamic structure. You know when we’re talking about magnetic field lines, we’re not talking about something that’s rigid and stuck in one spot,” Pugsley mentioned.

The Cains Quest sled canine race underneath the northern lights in Labrador. (Wayne Broomfield)

When southerners can see the aurora although, Pugsley mentioned there will be an essential distinction: is it instantly above them, or is it truly above northern Canada however you may see it from the south?

“And that’s still cool too because the side view of an aurora can give you an unbelievable show. It shows you how tall an aurora can be,” he mentioned.

Why is there a lot thriller?

“The most experienced scientists say that for every question that’s answered, there are 10 more that need to be answered,” Pugsley mentioned.

He mentioned scientists are at all times new missions to raised perceive the connection between the solar and the Earth, forecasting auroras and area climate, such because the Solar Orbiter mission that’s launching in February 2020.

There’s so much that we nonetheless do not find out about with regards to the aurora.– James Pugsley, Astronomy North

He notes that modern-day know-how, like cellphones, additionally rely upon that analysis since satellites will be affected by the photo voltaic wind.

“The more that we study the conditions, the more that we study the sun, the better our chances are predicting or forecasting these events,” he mentioned.

“It’s actually, really a scientific marvel, and there is a lot that we nonetheless do not find out about with regards to the aurora.

“It’s a good looking method to watch the solar and the Earth and their magnetic connection. And it tells a good looking scientific story.”

The Igloo Church in Inuvik, N.W.T. Green is the most typical color of aurora. (Submitted by Kristian Binder)

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