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Portfolio > AstroScapes (The Night Sky) > Northern Lights 4                                                           Click on an image below to reveal enlarged version

Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis)

An aurora, also commonly known as the northern lights (aurora borealis) or southern lights (aurora australis), is a natural light display in Earth's sky, predominantly seen in high-latitude regions (around the Arctic and Antarctic). Auroras display dynamic patterns of brilliant lights that appear as curtains, rays, spirals, or dynamic flickers covering the entire sky. Auroras are the result of disturbances in the Earth's magnetosphere caused by the solar wind. Major disturbances result from enhancements in the speed of the solar wind from coronal holes and coronal mass ejections. These disturbances alter the trajectories of charged particles in the magnetospheric plasma. These particles, mainly electrons and protonsprecipitate into the upper atmosphere (thermosphere/exosphere). The resulting ionization and excitation of atmospheric constituents emit light of varying colour and complexity. The form of the aurora, occurring within bands around both polar regions, is also dependent on the amount of acceleration imparted to the precipitating particles. Most of the planets in the Solar System, some natural satellitesbrown dwarfs, and even comets also host auroras.


Most auroras occur in a band known as the "auroral zone", which is typically 3° to 6° (approximately 330–660 km) wide in latitude and between 10° and 20° from the geomagnetic poles at all local times (or longitudes), most clearly seen at night against a dark sky. A region that currently displays an aurora is called the "auroral oval", a band displaced by the solar wind towards the night side of Earth. Early evidence for a geomagnetic connection comes from the statistics of auroral observations. 


In northern latitudes, the effect is known as the aurora borealis or the northern lights. The southern counterpart, the aurora australis or the southern lights, has features almost identical to the aurora borealis and changes simultaneously with changes in the northern auroral zone.The  aurora australis is visible from high southern latitudes in Antarctica, the Southern ConeSouth AfricaAustralasia and under exceptional circumstances as far north as Uruguay. The aurora borealis is visible from areas around the Arctic such as AlaskaCanadaIcelandGreenland, the Faroe IslandsScandinaviaScotland, and Russia. On rare occasions the aurora borealis can be seen as far south as the Mediterranean and the southern states of the US. During the Carrington Event, the greatest geomagnetic storm ever observed, auroras were seen even in the tropics.

geomagnetic storm causes the auroral ovals (north and south) to expand, bringing the aurora to lower latitudes. The instantaneous distribution of auroras ("auroral oval") is slightly different, being centered about 3–5° nightward of the magnetic pole, so that auroral arcs reach furthest toward the equator when the magnetic pole in question is in between the observer and the Sun. The aurora can be seen best at this time, which is called magnetic midnight.


Auroras seen within the auroral oval may be directly overhead. From farther away, they illuminate the poleward horizon as a greenish glow, or sometimes a faint red, as if the Sun were rising from an unusual direction. Auroras also occur poleward of the auroral zone as either diffuse patches or arcs, which can be subvisual.


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