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What are the Northern Lights and How they Work

Updated: Jan 19

By: Maliha Rahman


It’s hard to believe that something like the Northern Lights exists. Streaks of blue, green, and purple lights across the sky? Surely it must be the work of aliens, right? Nope! It’s just good old science at play. But first things first, what are the Northern Lights?


The Northern Lights are often called the Aurora Borealis. They are most clearly visible in areas closest to the North and South Pole, like Alaska and Antarctica. It must be night for them to be visible. They look like curtains of bright green, blue, and purple light across the sky, moving almost like waves. People all around the world travel to places like Greenland for the chance to see the Northern Lights in person.


Now for the tricky part. What makes the sky look like that? The first thing to remember is that this occurs on the poles of the Earth. The Earth is like one big magnet, with a large magnetic field surrounding it. The magnetic field has particles flowing along it. These particles are known as electrons, which are small particles with negative charges inside atoms.


The origin of these lights is actually the sun. The sun is a big ball of gas and any activity that occurs on the sun releases a big cloud of gas. It takes 2 to 3 days for this cloud to reach Earth. The cloud of gas hits the magnetic field of Earth and weird things start to happen. Imagine the magnetic field is like a rubber band being pulled away from the Earth by the gas cloud. When it snaps back into place, it creates waves that a person cannot see. In these waves, there are negatively charged electrons. The electrons hit the nitrogen and oxygen atoms in the Earth’s atmosphere and cause them to get excited. When electrons come down from this excited state, they release lights of different colors. This light is what we call the Aurora Borealis.


It’s amazing to think that a bunch of small particles that we cannot see causes the entire night sky to light up. If you ever have the time, look up videos or pictures of the Aurora Borealis. If you are even fortunate enough to see them in person, you’ll get to see one of the natural wonders of the world with your own eyes.


Sources:

https://www.loc.gov/everyday-mysteries/astronomy/item/what-are-the-northern-lights/

https://www.npr.org/2021/06/10/1004859458/what-causes-the-northern-lights-scientists-finally-know-for-sure#:~:text=When%20the%20electrons%20reach%20Earth's,we%20see%20as%20the%20aurora.



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