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Where Did Those Lights Come From?

June 3, 2015

Whether you've seen them up close or just in a picture everyone will agree that the Northern Lights (scientifically called Aurora Borealis) are remarkably beautiful. People from all over the world will travel to Alaska just to see if these lights are as amazing as they look in the pictures. We can spend hours ooohing and ahhhing, but let's pause that for just a minute to ask one question: what is making these lights?

The Northern and Southern Lights (called Aurora Australis, did you even know that was a thing?) occur when "highly charged electrons from the solar wind interact with elements in the earth's atmosphere." The Earth's core generates lines of magnetic force, and when these solar winds reach the Earth they follow these lines and flow through the magnetosphere (the region surrounding a planet where the planet's magnetic field dominates). As the electrons enter the upper atmosphere they encounter atoms of oxygen and nitrogen. When the electrons strike these atoms the lights are formed! The colors you see depend on which atom is struck and at what altitude it was struck at.

That's it! Now you know how the Northern Lights are formed and you can go impress people with your deep knowledge of science, Alaska and Aurora Borealis.

Professor Eureka Joe

For more information about the Northern Lights or the magnetoshere check out these references:



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