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Friday, 30 June 2006

The Northern Lights

Written by  Dr. Ronald Francis
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The Northern Lights are one of nature’s most fantastic light shows.  They appear as a whitish glow with flickering tints of green and red. They may make wavelike patterns or streak across the sky – a dance of lights.

 

 

Can you explain what the Northern Lights are and how they are produced?

aurora australis

The Northern Lights are one of nature’s most fantastic light shows.  They appear as a whitish glow with flickering tints of green and red. They may make wavelike patterns or streak across the sky – a dance of lights.

polar lightThe Northern Lights (otherwise known as the Aurora Borealis) are only found in the latitudes near the poles.  Although they are called the Northern Lights, a similar phenomena (called Aurora Australis), can be seen in the southern hemisphere. If you live near the US-Canada border, northern Asia, or northern Europe you’d be lucky to see the Northern Lights a few times a year.  In the Scandinavian countries’ higher latitudes, northern Canada, Alaska, northern Russia, Iceland, and Greenland the Northern Lights can be seen up to once per night.

Here is what happens: Periodically the sun emits particles that hurl themselves toward the earth. These are called solar flares, and the intensity of the flares changes more-or-less monthly.  These particles are in a plasma form, meaning that the nuclei of these particles have been ripped away from the electrons, making the now-separated particles charged either positive (protons and nuclei) or negative (electrons).  If you recall your high school Chemistry class, then you remember that matter consists of particles that can have a charge.

auroraMost atoms are neutral and are thus uncharged; particles from the sun, however, are often charged. These charged particles experience a magnetic force that causes them to move along a curved, spiraling path towards the Earth’s atmosphere around the polar axis --- where the field is strongest.

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Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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