Spirits in the sky: the stories and science behind the Northern Lights

Spirits in the sky: the stories and science behind the Northern Lights

Spirits in the sky: the stories and science behind the Northern Lights

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Topping many travelers’ bucket list, the ethereal phenomenon of the northern lights has captivated humanity’s imagination for centuries. And, for the curious traveler the northern lights history also holds a mystical allure.

Also known as the aurora borealis, these mesmerizing displays of dancing lights in the night sky have sparked numerous legends, myths and awe-inspiring tales across cultures. We take a look at northern lights history and science to see what lies behind earth’s greatest light show.

The science behind aurora borealis

The northern lights are a result of interactions between the Earth’s magnetic field and charged particles from the sun. As solar winds carry these charged particles towards Earth, they collide with molecules in the upper atmosphere. This releases energy in the form of light.

The phenomenon occurs primarily near the Earth’s magnetic poles. So the Northern Lights are predominantly visible in high-latitude regions such as Alaska, Canada, Iceland and Scandinavia.

Northern Lights history

The first recorded observations of the northern lights history can be traced back to ancient times. While the exact date is uncertain, historical accounts suggest the lights were witnessed as early as 2,600 years ago.

The earliest written records of the northern lights story come from ancient civilizations such as the Greeks and the Chinese. Greek philosopher Aristotle documented a peculiar glow in the sky around 330 BCE, while Chinese astronomers made similar observations around 200 BCE. These early accounts described the Northern Lights as a celestial spectacle, often associated with mythical or supernatural significance.

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The colors of the Northern Lights explained

bright red and green northern lights criss cross the night sky in Scandinavia

The variation in colors is primarily due to the type of gas particles involved in the interaction with charged particles from the sun. The most common color observed in the northern lights is green. This green hue occurs when charged particles collide with oxygen atoms in the Earth’s atmosphere. Specifically, the green light is emitted when the oxygen atoms are excited and then return to their original state.

In addition to green, other colors can be seen depending on the altitude and the type of gas particles present. At higher altitudes, where the atmosphere is thinner, nitrogen molecules can be excited and emit red or pink colors. At lower altitudes, oxygen atoms can emit red or purple hues. Furthermore, variations in the intensity of the solar particles and the energy of the collisions contribute to the color range.

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The Mystique of the Southern Lights

The Aurora Australis lighting up the skies over New Zealand

The southern lights, or aurora australis, mirror the northern lights in their mesmerizing beauty. This cosmic spectacle creates a mesmerizing display of vibrant colors, including shades of green, red, purple, and blue, dancing across the horizon. Occurring in high-latitude regions of the Southern Hemisphere, including Antarctica, New Zealand, and southern parts of Australia and South America, the southern lights offer a stunning counterpart to their more famous northern light show and are equally as fascinating to witness.

Scenic Iceland and the Northern Lights

Green northern lights dance in a bright blue sky with a geyser in the foreground, in Iceland

Admire the northern lights dancing overhead in Reykjavik, marvel at exploding hot springs in Geysir and thundering waterfalls of Skógafoss on this 1-week tour of intriguing Iceland’s natural wonders. At a geothermal bakery, fresh bread is dug out of the hot ground before your very eyes and put your horticulture skills to the test at Friðheimar’d huge tomato farms. Combined with stylish hotels and delicious dining, this is Iceland at its best.

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