The Northern Lights: An Overview of Everything Aurora Borealis

A Viking on a Viking longboat roams the Minch at night during the Northern lights, which is also called the Aurora Borealis. The sea of the Minch is flat and calm with the Aurora reflecting from it.

The Northern Lights: An Overview of Everything Aurora Borealis

The Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, is one such natural marvel that continues to kindle our curiosity and imagination. Let’s embark on this illuminating journey as we delve into the depths of the Aurora Borealis, right from the core of its dazzling existence to its reflection in our very own Aurora Borealis Candle.

Table of Contents

What is the Northern Lights?

The Aurora Borealis, commonly known as the Northern Lights, is a remarkable natural light display predominantly seen in the high-latitude regions around the Arctic. This celestial ballet of light is a sight to behold, as it paints the night sky with radiant hues of green, purple, blue, and sometimes even red and yellow.

These spectacular illuminations occur when electrically charged particles from the sun enter the Earth’s atmosphere and collide with gaseous particles. The term ‘Aurora Borealis’ was coined by Galileo Galilei in the 17th century, derived from the name of the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek name for the north wind, Boreas. This phenomenon in the southern hemisphere is known as the Aurora Australis or Southern Lights.

From understanding the science behind this spectacle to its cultural significance, historical observations, and the best times and places to witness it, we’ll explore the ethereal Aurora Borealis in depth. Be prepared to illuminate your knowledge as we embark on this enlightening journey.

How is the Aurora Borealis created?

Having marvelled at the beauty of the Aurora Borealis, it’s natural to wonder about the cosmic process that leads to its creation. The birth of this celestial phenomenon is the result of a series of fascinating events that take place both in the sun and within our planet’s atmosphere.

Firstly, the sun emits a constant stream of charged particles, known as the solar wind. Occasionally, the sun also produces solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs), which are more intense bursts of charged particles and electromagnetic radiation. These particles travel through space and eventually reach the Earth’s magnetic field.

As they approach our planet, the Earth’s magnetic field captures these charged particles and guides them towards the magnetic poles. Consequently, the particles are funnelled into the Earth’s atmosphere, primarily around the polar regions, where they collide with atoms and molecules of gases such as oxygen and nitrogen.

These collisions cause the atoms and molecules to become excited, and as they return to their normal state, they release energy in the form of light. The specific colours of the aurora are determined by the type of gas involved and the altitude at which the collisions occur. For instance, green is the most common colour, resulting from collisions with oxygen at lower altitudes, while reds and blues are produced by interactions with oxygen and nitrogen at higher altitudes.

In summary, the breathtaking Aurora Borealis is the product of an intricate dance between charged particles from the sun, the Earth’s magnetic field, and the gases in our atmosphere. So, the next time you gaze up at the Northern Lights, take a moment to appreciate the remarkable cosmic ballet unfolding before your eyes.

The Northern Lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis lights up the night sky in winter, above a man-made igloo

Understanding the Science Behind the Northern Lights

Delving deeper into the scientific aspects of the Aurora Borealis is truly fascinating. It’s a perfect blend of astrophysics, atmospheric science, and magnetospheric physics.

As we’ve discussed, the sun emits charged particles. This is a part of what we call the solar wind. These particles are mostly electrons and protons. They journey through space at speeds of about one million miles per hour!

Upon reaching Earth, these particles meet our planet’s magnetic field. The magnetic field extends far into space, forming a protective bubble around Earth. This bubble is called the magnetosphere. It shields us from a direct hit by the solar wind.

However, the magnetic field lines near the poles are open. This allows some particles to sneak in. These particles are guided by the field lines into the Earth’s polar regions.

Earth’s Protective Shield: The Magnetosphere

Here, they collide with atmospheric gases. This triggers a process called ionization. In simple terms, the charged particles from the sun transfer their energy to the atoms and molecules of the atmospheric gases.

This energy makes the gas atoms and molecules excited. They jump to a higher energy state. But this state is unstable, and they quickly drop back down.

As they do, they release their excess energy as light. This is the glow we see as the Northern Lights. The specific colour depends on the type of gas and the altitude. Green light comes from oxygen at lower altitudes, and red or blue light comes from oxygen and nitrogen at higher altitudes.

The science behind the Northern Lights is a testament to the dynamic nature of our planet and its interaction with the sun. It’s a vivid demonstration of how cosmic events far off in space can have stunning effects right here on Earth.

Cultural Significance and Folklore Surrounding the Aurora Borealis

Beyond the scientific explanation, the Aurora Borealis holds a special place in the hearts and minds of people across the world. Over centuries, the mesmerizing spectacle has been woven into the tapestry of various cultures, each interpreting the phenomenon through its unique lens of folklore and mythology.

The Northern Lights in Mythology and Folklore

Initially, when people looked up at the Aurora Borealis, they saw more than a celestial phenomenon; they saw stories. For instance, in Norse mythology, it was believed that the aurora was the Bifröst bridge, a glowing, pulsating archway leading the gods to the heavens.

Simultaneously, the indigenous Sami people of Scandinavia revered the lights, considering them a powerful spiritual entity. Even to this day, the aurora is treated with respect, and making noise or showing disrespect while the lights are active is considered bad luck.

Aurora Borealis in Indigenous Cultures

Shifting our focus to the New World, indigenous tribes in North America had their unique interpretations. Some Inuit tribes, for example, believed that the lights were the spirits of their ancestors playing a game in the sky or trying to communicate with the living.

In contrast, some Algonquin tribes viewed the Northern Lights as a fire built by their creator, Nanahbozho. After he finished creating the world, he travelled to the north, where he built large fires, reflected in the sky, to remind them of his enduring love.

The Modern Cultural Significance

In modern times, the Aurora Borealis continues to captivate and inspire. It’s a sought-after spectacle for travellers, photographers, and nature enthusiasts. It also plays a significant role in inspiring art, literature, and music.

The cultural significance of the Aurora Borealis is as diverse and beautiful as the lights themselves. As we move from one culture to another, we find a common thread – a sense of awe, reverence, and an innate desire to ascribe meaning to this stunning spectacle. The Northern Lights are a testament to the human need for stories and our enduring fascination with the natural world.

What are solar flares and how do they affect the aurora?

Transitioning from the cultural sphere back to the scientific realm, it’s essential to understand solar flares. These spectacular solar events play a significant role in creating the conditions necessary for the Aurora Borealis.

Understanding Solar Flares Which Then Cause The Northern Lights

Solar flares are massive bursts of energy that occur on the sun’s surface. Imagine them as gigantic explosions, releasing vast amounts of heat, light, and charged particles into space. These explosions can be millions of times more powerful than an atomic bomb!

The Journey of Solar Flares to Earth

When a solar flare occurs, it releases a cloud of charged particles known as a coronal mass ejection (CME). These particles travel towards Earth, carried by the solar wind. The journey can take from one to three days, depending on the speed of the ejection.

The Impact of Solar Flares on the Northern Lights

Upon reaching Earth, these charged particles interact with our planet’s magnetic field. This interaction funnels them towards the poles, where they collide with atmospheric gases, creating the Aurora Borealis.

The intensity of the Northern Lights is directly linked to solar flares. More intense solar flares result in more charged particles, leading to more vibrant and widespread auroras. During periods of high solar activity, the aurora can extend beyond the polar regions, reaching lower latitudes than usual.

Solar flares are integral to the creation of the Northern Lights. The next time you witness this spectacular light show, remember, it’s a direct result of the sun’s powerful energy and the cosmic journey of charged particles from millions of miles away.

A massive burst of energy forms a solar flare from the surface of the sun. Digital image

What are Geomagnetic Storms?

Transitioning from solar flares, let’s now explore another crucial element in the creation of the Northern Lights – geomagnetic storms. These phenomena further illustrate the complex interplay between the Sun and Earth that leads to the mesmerizing Aurora Borealis.

The Birth of a Geomagnetic Storm

A geomagnetic storm begins with solar activity. When the Sun produces a solar flare or a coronal mass ejection (CME), it sends a stream of charged particles towards Earth. This stream can carry with it a portion of the Sun’s magnetic field.

When Solar Wind Meets Earth’s Magnetosphere

As this stream, or solar wind, reaches Earth, it interacts with our planet’s magnetic field, the magnetosphere. If the solar wind’s magnetic field has a direction opposite to Earth’s, it can cause a significant disturbance in the magnetosphere. This disturbance is what we call a geomagnetic storm.

Geomagnetic Storms and the Northern Lights

Geomagnetic storms have a direct impact on the intensity and reach of the Northern Lights. The storm disturbs the Earth’s magnetosphere, enhancing its interaction with the incoming charged particles. This interaction leads to more particles being funnelled into the Earth’s atmosphere, resulting in more vibrant and widespread displays of the Aurora Borealis.

In essence, a geomagnetic storm serves as a catalyst, amplifying the beautiful light show we associate with the Northern Lights. So, when the Sun and Earth align their forces, we on the ground are treated to a dance of lights that fills the night sky with colour and wonder.

Where can you see the Northern Lights?

Transitioning from the cosmic ballet above, let’s focus on the earthly perspective. Where on our planet are the best seats for this incredible light show? The location of the viewer plays a significant role in experiencing the Aurora Borealis.

The Magic of the Polar Regions

Primarily, the Northern Lights appear most frequently in the polar regions, thanks to the Earth’s magnetic field. The closer you are to the magnetic north pole, the better your chances of seeing this spectacle. Countries like Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, and Canada offer some of the most impressive displays.

The Aurora Belt

However, it’s not just about how far north you are; there’s a particular geographical area known as the auroral oval or aurora belt. Here, the Northern Lights occur most frequently. This oval is typically centred around the magnetic pole and expands and contracts based on solar activity.

Aurora Borealis Beyond the Polar Regions

Although the polar regions offer the best views, it doesn’t mean you can’t see the Northern Lights elsewhere. During periods of high solar activity, particularly during a strong geomagnetic storm, the Northern Lights can be visible at lower latitudes. Instances of this spectacle have been reported as far south as Mexico and the Mediterranean.

So, while the polar regions offer the best chances to witness the Aurora Borealis, the lights can occasionally grace the skies of locations much farther south. So, keep an eye on solar activity and clear your schedule on the nights of geomagnetic storms; you might just be in for a celestial treat!

A Viking on a Viking longship sits on the Minch at night during the Northern lights, which is also called the Aurora Borealis. The sea of the Minch is flat and calm with the Aurora reflecting from it with the Viking glazing inti the night sky.

What are the best times to see the Aurora Borealis?

Transitioning from locations, let’s now consider timing. When is the best time to catch this magnificent celestial display? It’s not just about where you are, but also when you’re looking up.

The Dark, Cold Nights Catching the Aurora Borealis

Firstly, the Northern Lights are best viewed on dark, clear nights. Cities’ lights can cause light pollution, masking the delicate glow of the aurora. Hence, it’s best to head away from urban areas, where the sky is darkest. Winter months, from late September to early April, are generally considered the best time, as the nights are longer.

The Magic Hours For the Northern Lights

Additionally, there’s a peak viewing time often referred to as “magnetic midnight.” This period, between 10 pm and 2 am, is when geomagnetic activity is usually at its highest, leading to more vibrant auroras.

Solar Cycle Considerations

However, it’s also important to remember the broader picture, the solar cycle. This 11-year cycle affects the intensity and frequency of solar flares and, consequently, the Northern Lights. During solar maximum, the peak phase of the cycle, auroras are more frequent and can be seen at lower latitudes.

Geomagnetic Storm Alerts

Furthermore, keeping an eye on geomagnetic storm alerts can also help. A strong geomagnetic storm increases the chance of seeing the Northern Lights, extending their reach beyond the polar regions.

In conclusion, the best times to see the Aurora Borealis hinge on several factors: the darkness of the night, the time of year, the phase of the solar cycle, and the occurrence of geomagnetic storms. So, pack your patience, your warmest clothes, and your sense of wonder, and prepare for the light show of a lifetime. Be sure to keep an eye on Aurorawatch UK for some Aurora signals. 

An info graph showing the best time of year to see the Northern lights, or Aurora Borealis.

Are the Northern Lights Visible in the UK?

Switching from a global perspective, let’s zoom in on a specific region – the United Kingdom. Can the people of the UK hope to catch a glimpse of the celestial dance of the Aurora Borealis?

The Northern Reaches of the UK

Primarily, the Northern Lights are most frequently visible in the northernmost parts of the UK. Scotland, especially the Scottish Highlands and the Northern Isles, often enjoys this mesmerizing spectacle, given the right conditions.

When the Solar Activity is High

However, it’s not just the northern regions that can witness the Northern Lights. During periods of high solar activity, especially during strong geomagnetic storms, the Aurora Borealis can be visible farther south. Instances of this celestial spectacle have been reported in Northern England and even as far south as the Midlands.

AuroraWatch UK: Your Northern Lights Alert Service

Fortunately for aurora enthusiasts in the UK, there’s a way to increase your chances of catching this display. AuroraWatch UK, a free service provided by Lancaster University, offers alerts when geomagnetic activity is high, indicating potential visibility of the Northern Lights.

Users can sign up to receive alerts via email or social media, keeping them informed of the optimal times to look skyward. It’s a fantastic resource for anyone hoping to witness the ethereal beauty of the Northern Lights without venturing too far from home.

In conclusion, while the UK may not be the first location that comes to mind when thinking about the Northern Lights, it’s certainly possible to witness this stunning phenomenon from UK shores, especially with the help of services like AuroraWatch UK. So, keep an eye on the sky and another on your aurora alerts; the next display might be just around the corner!

Can you see the Northern Lights with the Naked Eye?

Transitioning from cultural beliefs to practical considerations, a common question arises: Can you witness the Northern Lights with the naked eye? Do you need specialized equipment, or can this celestial ballet be appreciated in its raw form?

The Naked Eye Experience

The simple answer is, yes. The Northern Lights can indeed be seen with the naked eye. This natural spectacle paints the night sky with a palette of colours that can be appreciated without the aid of telescopes or binoculars. The dancing lights, shifting and swaying, can be fully experienced just by looking up on a clear, dark night in the right location.

The Intensity Factor

However, the visibility of the Northern Lights can vary depending on their intensity. During high solar activity, the aurora can be incredibly vibrant and easily seen. Conversely, during periods of low solar activity, the lights may be faint and require more effort to spot.

Northern Lights Comparison: Camera vs. Human Eye

It’s important to note that cameras often capture more vivid images of the Northern Lights than what we can see with our naked eyes. This difference is because cameras, especially those with long exposure settings, can accumulate light over time, resulting in more detailed and colourful images.

In conclusion, while cameras can capture stunning, vivid images, nothing beats the experience of watching the Northern Lights dance across the sky with your own eyes. So, find a dark spot, look up, and let this incredible spectacle captivate your senses.

The northern lights in the night sky. Similar to what it could look like to the naked eye in somewhere like the Highlands of Scotland

Does the Moon Ruin Your Chances of Seeing the Northern Lights?

Switching from human eyes to celestial bodies, let’s discuss another light in the night sky: the moon. Does its presence hinder your chance to witness the Northern Lights?

The Moon and It’s Light

Firstly, it’s important to understand that the moon, much like urban areas, can produce light pollution. The moon’s brightness can make it more difficult to see fainter stars and celestial phenomena, including the Northern Lights.

The Moon Phase Matters

However, the moon’s impact on viewing the aurora largely depends on its phase. During a new moon, when the moon is barely visible, it won’t significantly affect your view. Conversely, during a full moon, the additional light might make it more challenging to see a faint aurora.

But It’s Not a Showstopper to See the Northern Lights!

While the moon’s brightness can make spotting the Northern Lights more difficult, it by no means makes it impossible. Even with a full moon, a strong aurora can be seen, its vibrant colours dancing against the moonlit sky. I once caught the Northern lights out my driver’s side window while driving to a location to photograph them, all while there was a bright half-moon above.

While the moon can somewhat affect your Northern Lights viewing experience, it doesn’t ruin your chances. The dance of the Northern Lights can prevail, even under the glow of the moon. So, don’t let the moon phase deter you from a potential aurora-hunting adventure!

What are the Different Colours of the Northern Lights?

Transitioning from moonlight to the vibrant hues of the Aurora Borealis, we find ourselves asking: What paints the night sky with such a palette of colours during an aurora display?

A Rainbow in the Night Sky

The Northern Lights are famous for their ethereal glow, which can exhibit a variety of colours. The most common is a brilliant green, but it’s not unusual to see red, yellow, blue, and even purple dancing across the sky.

The Science of Colours

These colours originate from the interaction between the solar particles and different gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. Each gas emits a specific colour when it is excited by these particles.

  • Green: This colour, the most common in aurora displays, is produced by oxygen molecules located about 60 miles above Earth.
  • Red: Higher altitude oxygen, at heights of up to 200 miles, can produce a rare red aurora.
  • Blue or Purple: These colours occur when solar particles collide with nitrogen in our atmosphere.

The Role of Solar Activity

The specific colours you might see during an aurora event also depend on the level of solar activity. More intense solar activity can lead to a wider range of colours.

In conclusion, the Northern Lights are a true spectacle of nature, painting the night sky with a rainbow of colours. The type and intensity of these colours are a direct reflection of the ongoing cosmic dialogue between the Sun and Earth. So, the next time you find yourself under the night sky, remember, you’re witnessing not just a light show, but a colourful conversation between celestial bodies.

The aurora borealis is seen looking directly up towards the night sky, showing vivid colours of green, red, blue and purple. With a tree in the foreground

How Can You Increase Your Chances of Seeing the Northern Lights?

Now that we’ve delved into the colours of the Aurora Borealis, let’s consider practical tips to maximize your chances of witnessing this celestial spectacle. How can you tilt the odds in your favour?

Location, Location, Location

Primarily, being closer to the polar regions significantly boosts your chances of seeing the Northern Lights. Countries within or near the auroral oval, such as Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Canada, and Alaska in the US, are prime viewing spots.

The Dark Side

Seek out dark, rural areas away from city lights. Light pollution can significantly reduce the visibility of the aurora, so the darker the location, the better.

Timing is Everything

As we’ve discussed earlier, the winter months and the time around midnight often offer the best viewing conditions. Additionally, being mindful of the solar cycle can also help you plan. Years of solar maximum, the peak phase of the solar cycle, tend to have more frequent and more intense auroras.

Clear Skies For the Northern Lights

Opt for a clear, cloudless night. Cloud cover can obscure your view of the Northern Lights, so check the weather forecast beforehand.

Stay Updated

Use aurora forecast services, such as AuroraWatch UK or the NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center. These services provide alerts for heightened geomagnetic activity, indicating a higher likelihood of aurora displays.

In essence, increasing your chances of seeing the Aurora Borealis boils down to a few key factors: location, timing, weather, and solar activity. With these in mind and a bit of patience, you stand a good chance of witnessing one of nature’s most stunning displays.

Why is the Northern Lights Activity Stronger Around the Equinoxes?

Transitioning from practical tips to a more seasonal aspect, let’s tackle an intriguing pattern observed with the Northern Lights. Why are they more active around the equinoxes?

The Equinox Phenomenon

Aurora activity tends to peak during the spring and autumn equinoxes, in March and September. This phenomenon, known as the “Russell-McPherron effect,” is a subject of ongoing scientific study.

The Alignment of Earth’s Magnetic Field

The primary reason for this increased activity is the alignment of Earth’s magnetic field with the Sun’s. Around the equinoxes, the Earth’s magnetic field is best oriented for connecting with the Sun’s magnetic field. This connection allows more solar particles, carried by the solar wind, to interact with the Earth’s magnetosphere, leading to heightened aurora activity.

The Solar Wind’s Role

Furthermore, the solar wind, a stream of charged particles flowing from the Sun, can more easily transfer energy into Earth’s magnetosphere around the equinoxes. This increased energy can trigger more geomagnetic storms, which in turn generate more visible auroras.

The increased aurora activity around the equinoxes is due to the interplay between the Earth’s magnetic field and the solar wind. This celestial alignment turns these times of the year into a prime season for aurora hunters, adding another reason to look forward to the changing seasons.

Why Does the Northern Lights ‘Dance’?

Moving from the seasonal spectacle to the dynamic display, let’s delve into a captivating aspect of the Northern Lights – their dance. What causes the Aurora Borealis to sway and swirl across the night sky?

The Dance of Charged Particles

The ethereal dance of the Aurora Borealis is the result of charged particles from the Sun interacting with the Earth’s magnetic field. These particles are drawn towards the magnetic poles, where they collide with atmospheric gases, causing them to glow.

The Role of the Earth’s Magnetic Field

As these charged particles travel along the Earth’s magnetic field lines, they create flowing, dancing patterns of light. These patterns follow the Earth’s magnetic field lines, which is why the aurora appears to “dance” across the sky.

The Impact of Solar Wind

The intensity and speed of the solar wind also play a crucial role in the aurora’s dance. When the solar wind is strong, it can distort the Earth’s magnetic field, causing the field lines to shift and move. This movement leads to changes in the patterns of the aurora, making it appear as though it’s dancing.

The dance of the Northern Lights is a visually stunning result of cosmic forces at play. The movement of charged particles along our planet’s magnetic field lines creates a ballet of light, a dance that is as scientifically fascinating as it is aesthetically pleasing.

The sky is filled with dancing green northern lights show. The foreground is a snow-covered landscape with a forest.

What are Some Safety Tips for Viewing the Aurora Borealis?

Shifting our focus from the ethereal dance to practical safety, let’s consider some essential tips for safely witnessing the Northern Lights. What precautions should you take to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience?

Dress for the Weather

When hunting for the Northern Lights, you are likely to be outside in cold, potentially sub-zero, conditions for extended periods. Dress warmly in layers, and don’t forget hats, gloves, and warm footwear. Hypothermia and frostbite are real risks, so prepare accordingly.

Be Aware of Your Surroundings

Viewing the Northern Lights often involves being in remote, rural locations at night. Be aware of your surroundings and watch out for potential hazards, such as uneven ground, bodies of water, or local wildlife.

Travel with a Companion

If possible, avoid going alone. Not only can a companion help in case of emergencies, but they can also make the experience more enjoyable.

Carry a Flashlight

A flashlight is essential for safety in the dark. However, use it sparingly to preserve your night vision for the best view of the Northern Lights.

Stay Updated with Weather and Northern Lights Forecasts

Check the weather forecast before heading out. Clear skies are best for viewing the Northern Lights. Similarly, monitor aurora forecasts to ensure optimal timing.

Respect Local Laws and Private Property

Ensure you respect local laws and don’t trespass on private property. If you’re unsure, ask locals or guides for appropriate places to view the aurora.

Safety should be a priority when planning to watch the Northern Lights. Preparation, awareness, and respect for local rules and conditions will ensure that your aurora viewing is not only breathtaking but also safe.

We Know the Northern Lights, But Have You Heard of the Southern Lights?

Moving away from the frosty northern regions, let’s turn our attention south. Did you know there’s a counterpart to the Aurora Borealis in the Southern Hemisphere? Let’s explore the Southern Lights, also known as the Aurora Australis.

The Aurora Australis

Just like the Northern Lights, the Southern Lights, or Aurora Australis, are a result of charged particles from the sun colliding with atmospheric gases near the Earth’s South Pole. These collisions generate stunning displays of light, similar to the Aurora Borealis, but they tend to dance above Antarctica and the surrounding Southern Ocean.

Where Can You See The Southern Lights?

While less well-known due to their remote location, the Southern Lights can be seen from high southern latitudes. These include the southernmost parts of New Zealand, Australia, and South America, as well as Antarctica. The same factors that affect viewing the Northern Lights – solar activity, time of year, weather conditions, and absence of light pollution – apply to the Southern Lights as well.

Same Phenomenon, Different Hemisphere

In essence, the Southern Lights are the same phenomenon as the Northern Lights, just occurring in the Southern Hemisphere. They offer a similarly spectacular light show and serve as a reminder of the symmetrical nature of Earth’s magnetic field.

So, while the Northern Lights may get most of the attention, the Southern Hemisphere is not without its own celestial spectacle. The Aurora Australis is every bit as stunning, painting the polar skies with its magnificent dance.

Have You Met STEVE? A Different Kind of Aurora

Transitioning from the Southern Lights, let’s turn our gaze to a rather recent discovery in the realm of atmospheric phenomena – STEVE.

What is STEVE?

STEVE, an acronym for Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement, is a unique light phenomenon distinct from traditional auroras. Initially noticed by Aurora watchers and photographers, STEVE appears as a thin, purplish arc extending for hundreds or even thousands of miles, aligned from east to west. Sometimes, it’s accompanied by short-lived, green, picket-fence-like features.

Discovery and Investigation

Originally, the term STEVE was coined by aurora enthusiasts, but it was later adopted by scientists who began studying the phenomenon. Researchers initially believed STEVE to be a type of aurora, but studies in recent years have shown that it’s not the result of the same atmospheric and solar interactions that create the Northern and Southern Lights.

The Science Behind STEVE

STEVE occurs closer to the equator than where typical auroras appear, in areas not usually affected by Earth’s magnetic field lines. Researchers are still not entirely sure what causes STEVE, but they believe it’s related to a flow of charged particles in the ionosphere, the same region where auroras occur. This flow, combined with certain atmospheric conditions, seems to create a distinctive purplish light ribbon.

In conclusion, STEVE adds another layer of intrigue to the already fascinating study of atmospheric light phenomena. While it shares the stage with the more famous auroras, STEVE is a unique spectacle that reminds us there’s still much to learn about our own planet’s atmosphere. We have been lucky enough to see STEVE a couple of times here on the coast of the Minch. 

The Kp-index: A Tool for Predicting Northern Lights Activity

Moving from the beautiful mystery of STEVE, let’s delve into a scientific tool that’s crucial for predicting aurora activity – the Kp-index.

What is the Kp-index?

The Kp-index is a global geomagnetic activity index, ranging from 0 to 9, with 0 being very quiet and 9 indicating a major geomagnetic storm. It’s used to measure the disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic field caused by solar activity.

How is it Calculated?

The index is derived from measurements taken from magnetic observatories around the world. The ‘K’ stands for Kennziffer, a German word meaning ‘characteristic number’, and ‘p’ signifies that it’s a planetary index, meaning it represents global geomagnetic activity.

How Does it Help in Viewing the Northern Lights?

A higher Kp-index generally means a greater likelihood of seeing the aurora at lower latitudes. However, a high Kp-index also usually requires a solar storm or significant solar activity, which doesn’t happen every day.

For example, a Kp-index of 1 means the aurora is likely only visible from high-latitude regions like northern Scandinavia or Canada. In contrast, a Kp-index of 5 or more increases the chances of the aurora being visible in lower latitude areas like Scotland or the northern United States.

In conclusion, the Kp-index is a useful tool for aurora watchers, providing a measure of geomagnetic activity that can indicate the likelihood of an aurora display. By keeping an eye on the Kp-index, you can plan your aurora hunting for when conditions are most favourable.

KP-Index chart for viewing the Northern Lights

Do Other Planets Have Aurorae?

Leaving the confines of our planet, let’s journey into the wider solar system. It’s a fascinating question: Do other planets experience the beauty of aurorae as we do on Earth?

Beyond Earth: Aurorae in the Solar System

The answer is yes! Other planets in our solar system do have aurorae, created by the same basic process as the Earth’s aurorae. However, the specific conditions and appearances of these extra-terrestrial light shows can vary widely.

Jupiter and Saturn

Jupiter and Saturn, both gas giants, have powerful magnetic fields and produce spectacular aurorae. The interaction between these planets’ magnetic fields and the solar wind results in auroras that are stronger and more complex than those on Earth. Interestingly, Jupiter’s aurorae are also influenced by the planet’s moon, Io, which contributes charged particles from its volcanic eruptions.


Mars, unlike Earth, doesn’t have a global magnetic field. However, it does have localized magnetic fields in various regions of the planet, and these can interact with the solar wind to produce aurorae. Mars’ aurorae are different from Earth’s and are not visible to the naked eye.

Uranus and Neptune

Uranus and Neptune, the ice giants of our solar system, also exhibit aurorae. These auroras are, again, the result of solar particles interacting with these planets’ magnetic fields.

In conclusion, Earth is not alone in hosting these mesmerizing light shows. The presence of aurorae on other planets is another testament to the universal principles of physics and the interconnected nature of our solar system. These extra-terrestrial aurorae offer a fascinating area of study for scientists, shedding light on the magnetic environments of our neighbouring planets.

The Northern Lights are viewed from another planet, similar to Mars. This is an altered image and not real.

Capturing the Magic: Photography Tips for the Northern Lights

Let’s pivot from the theoretical to the practical. The aurora borealis is not just a spectacle to behold; it’s also a favourite subject for photographers. But capturing this elusive and dynamic light show can be tricky. Here are some tips to help you get started:

Gear Up

Quality matters. A camera with manual settings is a must, as is a sturdy tripod to keep your shots steady in long exposures. A wide-angle lens is ideal for capturing the grandeur of the sky. Also, don’t forget spare batteries as they can drain quickly in cold conditions.

Set the Stage

Composition is key. Try to include interesting elements in your foreground like silhouettes of trees, mountains, or reflective bodies of water. They add depth and scale to your images.

Dial in Your Settings

Start with these settings: set your lens to its widest aperture (low f-number), use a high ISO (between 1600 and 3200), and try a shutter speed of about 15-20 seconds. Remember, these are just starting points – you’ll need to adjust depending on the aurora’s brightness and movement.

Focus Right

Getting crisp shots in the dark can be challenging. Set your lens to manual focus, aim it at a distant light or bright star, and adjust until the image is sharp. Some photographers also recommend using the “infinity” (∞) setting on your lens, but ensure to check the sharpness.

Shoot in RAW

Shooting in RAW format gives you more flexibility when editing your photos later, as it captures more detail than JPEG.

Be Patient, Stay Warm & Enjoy The Northern Lights Show

Photography, like aurora viewing, often requires patience. Dress warmly, bring a thermos of hot tea, and be prepared for a long night.

Finally, don’t forget to take a moment away from the camera to appreciate the spectacle with your own eyes. There’s no substitute for the raw experience of seeing the aurora borealis in person. Happy shooting!

A strong aurora borealis over a mountain and reflecting off the sea on a flat calm night with clear stars

Aurora Borealis: Its Influence on Art and Literature

Shifting our focus from the lens to the canvas and the written page, let’s explore how the Aurora Borealis has influenced art and literature over the centuries.

The Northern Lights in Art

The ethereal beauty of the Northern Lights has been a source of inspiration for artists since time immemorial. From the cave paintings of ancient humans to modern digital art, the Aurora Borealis has found its way onto many a canvas.

Famous artists like Frederic Edwin Church and Thomas Moran have painted the Northern Lights, capturing its awe-inspiring spectacle in their landscape works. Contemporary artists continue this tradition, using various mediums to interpret the dynamic, shifting colours and shapes of the aurora.

The Northern Lights in Literature

In literature, the Aurora Borealis has been used as a symbol and metaphor across a variety of genres. From the epic poems of the past to modern science fiction, the Northern Lights have been used to signify mystery, the supernatural, or the sublime power of nature.

In Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy, “His Dark Materials,” the aurora serves as a gateway to other worlds. Meanwhile, in Jo Nesbo’s crime novels, the lights cast an eerie glow over the dark deeds unfolding beneath them.

Poets, too, have long been captivated by the aurora. Its fleeting, ethereal beauty serves as a potent metaphor for themes of longing, change, and the sublime.

The Aurora Today: Modern Media

In today’s digital age, the influence of the Aurora Borealis extends to photography, film, and even video games. Its stunning visuals continue to captivate, serving as a reminder of nature’s grandeur.

In conclusion, the Aurora Borealis, with its ethereal beauty and dramatic displays, has left an indelible mark on the world of art and literature. It continues to inspire creativity, reminding us of our enduring fascination with the natural world.

The Environmental Impact on the Visibility of the Northern Lights

Now, let’s consider the environment’s role in viewing the Aurora Borealis. While solar activity is key to the formation of the Northern Lights, environmental factors on Earth play a significant role in their visibility.

Light Pollution Lowers Your Chance of Seeing the Northern Lights

Light pollution, caused by artificial lighting from cities and towns, can significantly reduce the visibility of the Northern Lights. The brightness from streetlights, buildings, and cars can outshine the aurora, making it difficult to see, especially from urban areas. Dark, rural locations away from city lights provide the best viewing conditions.

Atmospheric Conditions

The clarity of the atmosphere affects the visibility of the aurora. Clear, cloudless skies are ideal for viewing, while clouds can completely block the view. Similarly, particles in the air from pollution or natural events like volcanic eruptions can obscure the Northern Lights.

Season and Time of Day

The season and time of day also impact visibility. Long, dark winter nights provide more opportunity to see the aurora than the shorter, brighter nights of summer. The Northern Lights are most visible around midnight when the sky is darkest.

Geographic Location For the Northern Lights

The Earth’s magnetic field guides the charged solar particles that create the aurora toward the poles. Therefore, the Northern Lights are most frequently seen in high-latitude regions near the Arctic, such as northern Scandinavia, Canada, and Alaska. However, during periods of high solar activity, the aurora can be visible at lower latitudes.

While the creation of the Northern Lights hinges on solar activity and our planet’s magnetic field, their visibility is greatly influenced by our environment. Reducing light pollution and preserving clear skies are not only beneficial for our ecosystems but can also enhance our chances of witnessing this natural wonder.

The Aurora Borealis and its Impact on Indigenous Cultures

Moving from environmental to cultural impact, let’s explore the deep connection between indigenous cultures and the Aurora Borealis.

A Sacred Phenomenon

For many indigenous peoples living in the Arctic regions, the Northern Lights are more than just a natural phenomenon. They hold a sacred significance, are often seen as a bridge to the divine, and are deeply intertwined with spiritual beliefs, storytelling, and cultural practices.

Inuit Beliefs

Among the Inuit peoples of Greenland and Canada, for example, the aurora is often viewed as the spirits of ancestors playing a celestial game, with the lights representing the spirits themselves or the glow from their walrus-ivory torches. It was also believed that whistling at the lights could call them closer, but turning them away required clapping or making noise.

Sami Traditions

In Sami culture in northern Scandinavia, the aurora, known as “guovssahas,” was regarded with awe and a certain degree of fear. The lights were believed to possess immense power, and it was thought that they could descend from the sky to interact with the people and the earth. Certain rules were observed when the lights appeared, such as being quiet and behaving respectfully.

Native American Interpretations of the Northern Lights

Among certain Native American tribes, the lights were seen as the spirits of animals, warriors, or departed loved ones. Some tribes, like the Menominee of Wisconsin, believed the lights were the torches of giant, celestial sturgeon swimming across the sky.

The Aurora Borealis has been a source of wonder, inspiration, and spiritual connection for indigenous cultures. These perspectives remind us that the Northern Lights are not just a natural phenomenon but also a cultural heritage, carrying centuries of tradition, respect, and understanding.

Inspiration from the Sky: The Aurora Borealis Candle

At the Minch Candle Company, we believe in capturing the essence of nature’s most magical phenomena. Drawing inspiration from the ethereal beauty of the night sky, we’ve crafted our Aurora Borealis Candle.

Just like the Northern Lights, no two Aurora Borealis candles are the same. Each is hand-poured with care.

Did you know that many ancient cultures, including Nordic countries, had unique interpretations of the Aurora Borealis, often ascribing them to familiar or significant elements of their daily lives?

The belief is from the Old Norse culture, where they thought the Aurora Borealis was the reflection of light off vast shoals of herring in the sea. This interpretation makes sense given the importance of herring in their society and economy. It’s a testament to how our surroundings and culture can shape our understanding of natural phenomena. This is partly our inspiration, imagining the Aurora shimmering off the surface of the Minch as fishermen searched for Herring to catch. 

The Northern Lights reflection shimmered off the water of the Minch with a school of Herring at the surface

Conclusion to This Northern Lights Article

The Aurora Borealis, an awe-inspiring spectacle of nature, has fascinated humankind for centuries. From its formation high in the Earth’s atmosphere to its influence on art, literature, and indigenous cultures, the Northern Lights represent a unique intersection of science, culture, and natural beauty.

Witnessing the dance of the aurora across the sky is an experience like no other, a reminder of the Earth’s connection to the wider cosmos. While the Northern Lights are most visible in the polar regions, their influence reaches far beyond, inspiring artists, writers, scientists, and candlemakers alike.

Imagine Yourself Immersed In the Northern Lights With The Minch Candle Co.

At the Minch Candle Company, we’re honoured to capture a piece of this celestial magic in our Aurora Borealis Candle. As you light it and watch the colours flicker and dance, we hope it brings not only the scent and ambience of the Scottish Highlands into your home but also the wonder of the Northern Lights.

Whether you’re a seasoned aurora chaser or just beginning your journey into the world of the Northern Lights, we hope this article has provided you with a deeper understanding of this natural phenomenon. The Aurora Borealis is a testament to the Earth’s endless capacity for beauty, a beauty we all have the opportunity to protect, appreciate, and be inspired by.

No Comments

Post A Comment