Aurora myths, colors, and formation
On Alaska clear nights, one has chances to view the aurora. While the aurora is there all the time, sometimes very weak, sometimes very strong, you cannot see it during the daytime. Thus, when we came to Alaska in July, we were looking forward to fall.
The first sighting
One night on our way home from a symphony concert, we saw our first aurora. Its greenish curtain covered the sky from one end of the horizon to the other. The aurora was dancing. It looked like a semi-opaque vertically striped curtain with uneven greenish white folds gently moving in response to the summer breeze at an open window. We stopped at the side of the road, switched off the engine and lights, and watched until the air in the car became too cold for comfort.
Aurora alarm clock
At that time we lived out in Goldstream in the suburbs of Fairbanks close to Mary Shields. During our tenure in Goldstream, she had over 80 sled dogs. In nights with strong, i.e. beautiful aurora events, her dogs would start hauling at the aurora. Dogs and some people can hear the whistling and cracking of the aurora. Thanks to the sled dogs we never missed a great display. Sometimes we would watch the dance for over an hour until we felt cold sitting at the window in the dining room.
Low aurora activity
When you see the aurora on a regular basis, you reduce the time watching it or staying up because the aurora forecast calls for a big display. When you live in a northern country for a while, the aurora must turn pink or red for you to be excited like a kid on Christmas.
In the zero years, the frequency of aurora activity went down. It even was relatively low when it was supposed to go up again in response to the Sun’s activity. At that time, we were lucky that friends from Europe who took the effort to visit in winter got to see an aurora.
New year’s Eve fireworks under the aurora
I always wanted to take a photo of the New Year’s Eve fireworks under the aurora. This New Year’s Eve, I finally was lucky, but unfortunately not prepared. One would need a tripod due to the long exposure needed. We saw the aurora and fireworks on our way home from a dance performance we had given. Since we had the camera with us, I just took a chance. The photo turned out acceptable given the circumstances. What do you think?
Every northern culture has its stories and legends around the Northern Lights. In many of them, the aurora is related to spirits. Some of these legends relate the whistling and crackling noise that sometimes accompanies an aurora to the voices of the spirits communicating with the people on Earth.
One legend interprets the aurora as a spirit in great demand in helping by the best shamans. In this case, the spirit is seen as alive as the men and women on Earth. The aurora is thought to come close when you whistle at it. If you spit at it, the aurora would gather in the middle and form a new display. I never tried either of them.
One Eskimo legend associates the aurora with the ballgames of the deaths. Playing ball with a walrus skull is a favorite game among Eskimos. The goal is to kick the skull in such a way that it lands with the tusk downward to stick to the ground. This ballgame of the departed souls becomes visible as the aurora.
Science of the aurora
From a science point of view, fast-moving electrons from space collide with the oxygen and nitrogen in Earth’s ionosphere and excite the electrons of these gases. This means the electrons reach a higher orbit around their atomic nucleus. The electrons release the excess energy in form of photons, i.e. light when they return to the normal orbit.
The aurora color depends on the excited gas and the exchanged amount of energy. Oxygen leads to a greenish-yellow light or a red light. Nitrogen yields blue light.
A planet with a green aurora has oxygen. - Suyn Ichi Akasofu #quote #aurora Click To Tweet
Both oxygen and nitrogen molecules also emit UV light. However, only specialized cameras can register this part of the spectrum. Think of these cameras like being similar to the IR cameras. We can’t see IR, but these specialized cameras can interpret the IR light in terms of visible light. The UV is just in a quite different part of the solar spectrum than the IR.
Did you know that the aurora’s presence caused problems in the communication during WWII? Thus, after the war the Geophysical Institute was established for aurora research.
When you are fascinated by the aurora you may be interested in reading about what to wear for aurora watching.
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Photos: G. Kramm
© 2013-2018 Nicole Mölders | All rights reserved