We have all seen an image of the Northern Lights, but how many of us know what actually causes this natural phenomena? It is a popular question, and one that not many people have the answer to. Let us talk you through the myths and history of this natural phenomenon, what causes them and the variations in colour and we’re sure that you will be ready to jump on a northern lights cruise in search of them for yourself.
Mythology and history of the Northern Lights
Human beings have spent thousands of years gazing up into the skies above them at these dancing bands of colour, wondering what they meant. Different cultures have developed different myths and stories surrounding the natural phenomena, meaning that the Northern Lights go beyond just science. The lights are closely bound to culture, religion, mysticism and remain so all of these years later.
Depictions of Aurora Borealis have been traced as far back at 30,000 B.C. Cro-Magnon cave paintings, the “Macaronis” appears to be the first recording of the lights. It wasn’t until 2,600 B.C when we see the first written citing. In China it is said that Fu-Pao, the mother of the Yellow Empire Shuan-Yuan, noticed ‘strong lightning’ around Su, a star. The writing notes how the light illuminated the whole area.
It was Galileo Galilei who first coined the term “aurora borealis” in 1619 A.D. The name derives from Aurora – the Roman goddess of the morning – and the Greek name for north wind, Boreas. Originally though he thought that it was they were a reflection of the sun from the atmosphere.
However, in the 1200s there are descriptions of them spectacle in writing from the Vikings. The work, “Kongespeilet” goes against other European thoughts on the lights at the time. Kongespeilet describes it as a natural phenomenon, a theory that was not matched for another 500 years. Norwegian Vikings also believed in a sky bridge between Earth and the gods, which could be early concepts of the Northern Lights. They even had a god for them, Heimdall.
Sir Edmund Halley, a scientist from England famous for discovering Halley’s Comet, achieved the first scientific results about the phenomena. After seeing the Lights in 1716, he explained them as such: “Auroral rays are due to the particles, which are affected by the magnetic field; the rays are parallel to Earth’s magnetic field, and the vault like shape is due to perspective phenomena.” His findings were the first of their kind to be accepted, and remain so to this day.
The myths and beliefs
The lights have been documented by civilisations across the world. From the Ancient Romans to Imperial China, recorded sightings describe the lights in different, more vivid ways.
Sightings of the Northern Lights in Europe are limited to those countries closest to the Arctic Circle, though they have been known to descend upon some parts of England, but rarely further. To be visible so far south there would need to be intense solar activity, resulting in red Auroras.
At the time, when there was of course no documentation of such a thing, and given how rare the occurrence was, it is no surprise that these events could cause some concern. In France and Italy they believed that the lights were a bad omen, foreshadowing anything from war to a plague. Whereas in the United Kingdom it is said that the skies turned red weeks before the French Revolution, making them appear to be a warning of the upcoming events.
There are two popular beliefs from North America about the meaning of the Northern Lights. The first comes from Inuit tribes who would call the Lights “aqsarniit”, meaning ‘to play with a ball’. These people believed that the lights where the spirits of the dead playing an ancient form of football with the head of a walrus.
The other relates to the Cree. One of the largest groups of First Nations in North America, the Cree’s thoughts on the Lights directly related to their beliefs. They believed in the circle of life and as such, saw the lights as the dead that had not been fully separated from their family and loved ones. They would come back again and again in an attempt to communicate with those they left behind.
China and Japan
Like in Europe, sightings of the Northern Lights in China and Japan are rare. But when they did occur, the Chinese in particular were in awe of the glowing patterns that would illuminate the sky. The lights are tied to many Chinese legends that relate to dragons, as it is viewed that a good and bad dragon would be fighting and breathing fire (the colours) at each other. The Japanese believe that if a child is conceived beneath the Northern Lights then they will be attractive, intelligent and receive a good fortune.
One myth that surrounds the Aurora Borealis is waving, singing or whistling at it. It is believed that if you do any of them the spirits of the lights will be aware of your presence and will come and take you away. However, if you clap then you will be safe. North American Indians are said to whistle to them in an attempt to entice them closer so they could pass message onto the dead.
What causes the Northern Lights?
What are the Northern Lights? What do they mean? How do they happen? These are questions that bewildered human kind for thousands of years. Alaskan Aurora Hunter Todd Salat, from Aurora Hunter, is one such person who has been fascinated by the science involved: “I love the science behind the northern lights and feel that a little bit of understanding on how they form enhances their beauty. Trying to fathom how charged particles ejected from the sun (the solar wind) interacts with the earth’s magnetic field causing the night time to glow with brilliant auroras is mind boggling.... and I like that feeling, the feeling of awe!”
Aurora displays begin their journey 93,000,000 miles away on the surface of the sun. These charged particles escape the sun and enter the Earth’s atmosphere when a solar wind causes the Earth’s magnetic field lines to disconnect. The lines will snap back into place, meaning the particles are pushed with force into our atmosphere, causing Auroras. The positioning of the lights depends on how many magnetic field lines disconnect. The more that are disconnected the further south they will appear.
Why are they different colours?
No one photo of the Northern Lights is the same. Across the internet there are brilliant examples of this beautiful event, each with different colours and shapes. But why are they all different colours? The colour of the Northern Nights depends on what gases the particles from the sun collide with. On top of that, it depends on the altitude where the collision happens.
Red – oxygen – more than 150 miles above Earth’s surface: Red was most commonly associated with some really intense solar activity. Oxygen is less concentrated at this height, meaning it is more excited than oxygen elsewhere, resulting in the red colours.
Green – oxygen - up to 150 miles above Earth’s surface: The most common of Auroras are green. This is because the majority of collisions happen at this distance. Our eyes are actually better equipped to pick up the colour green than others, so if you are looking on a northern lights cruise but only see a faint whisper of the lights, get the camera out and take a picture. Chances are it will be able to capture much more of it than the naked eye.
Yellow and violet – nitrogen - above 60 miles above Earth’s surface: Simply put, an Aurora that appears yellow or pink in colour is simply a mixture of a red and green Aurora.
Blue – nitrogen - up to 60 miles above Earth’s surface: Blue and shades of purple occur rarely. It is another rare occasion that is dependent on very high solar activity. When the collisions with nitrogen are so close to Earth the particles glow in a bluish-purple.
There is no doubt that the Northern Lights are one of the most spectacular sights on Earth. Deservedly a natural phenomenon, we may not be able to see them here all that often in the UK, but you can by booking a northern lights cruise. Pack your camera, some warm clothes and prepare yourself for an unforgettable experience.