The northern lights, the aurora borealis, are an iconic symbol of winter in the northern hemisphere, the stuff of legend as well as of scientific investigation.
Perhaps you have made a trip on purpose to see them, as our colleague Skye did when he was in Iceland.
Then again, perhaps you’ve had the chance to to see the aurora unexpectedly, as I have done in Scotland.
Maybe you’ve yet to see the lights in person. Do you find yourself loving photos of the aurora, though, enjoying imagining the dances? This is a classic one. It was made on the Isle of Mull in Scotland.
Is viewing the northern lights in person is on your bucket list?
Wherever you find yourself on this range of connections ot the aurora borealis, here are several facts about the dancing lights you may not have known, several photos to enjoy, and information about two rather unexpected places where you can explore watching the aurora borealis online.
The short science on what causes the northern lights to glow: charged particles escape from the sun, move in waves across the universe, and collide with gas molecules in earth’s atmosphere. When they intersect, that produces energy in the form of light.
Their colours depend on location and angle of the intersection of these physical properties. Green is most commonly seen, though you may also see tinges of other colours including red and blue.
The contrast of the dark night sky is needed to see the aurora. That helps to explain why winter is the time to look for the lights: nights are longer. Auroras are present in summer too. Timing and geography. work against their visibility in summer.
The aurora can take many forms, including waves, patches, pillars, circles, and other shapes. What causes the differences? Differences in angle, location, and timing of the meeting of earth’s magnetic fields with those particles from the sun, and also your angle of view on the spectacle all affect this.
It is said that Galileo was the first to use the name aurora borealis for these winter lights. Dawn of the north is one interpretation of the name.
There is quite a bit of science — astronomy, physics, geography, and meteorology to name several disciplines — to do with the northern lights.
There is quite a bit of legend, myth, and story as well.
When you think about how the lights must have appeared to people watching hundreds upon hundreds of years ago, well before all that science was in play, that make sense.
What were they? Where did they come from? What did they mean? What stories did they tell?
Across all the northern lands, where people saw the aurora every winter season, there came to be stories that told of hope, of fear, of history, of healing, of valor, of mystery. Some saw them as giants, or spirits playing games. Others took them to be shields of mythic warriors. Some saw the aurora borealis as harbingers of famine or disaster; other saw them as signs of hope.
Given their appearance, it’s natural that some stories and legends see the lights as fires kindled by spirits of the otherworld. Guests dancing their way to a wedding is one legend, and in Scotland, up in the Northern Isles, the northern lights were known as the Mirrie Dancers, merry dancers.
Scotland is one place where you may have the chance to see the northern lights in person, and also a location from which you can see the lights, when they appear, online as well.
The cliff cam at Sumburgh Head is a good place to explore the lights. Sumburgh Head is at the very southern tip of Mainland, the central isle of Shetland, which lies north of Orkney and mainland Scotland. You may also know Sumburgh for its location near the ancient site of Jarlshof or the more modern airport. Yes, it is rather far north. The camera’s location facing the sea can allow for unique views of the northern lights on clear dark nights.
Across the world, in Churchill, in Manitoba, Canada, you may also see the aurora by way of cameras from the Churchill Northern Studies Center. Churchill might be best known for the polar bears which sometimes walk its streets. With its location on the western edge of Hudson’s Bay, it is also a great place to look for the aurora borealis, in person or through the center’s online feed.
There are other fine places to see the northern lights online and in person; Churchill and Sumburgh are each well worth seeking out. In person or online, be aware the winter time, clear dark nights, and times between about 11pm and 4 am (local time; be sure to check time zones) offer best chance of viewing and : be patient. The northern lights are natural phenomena which appear on their own schedules. They are worth waiting for, however.
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