The Northern Lights have fascinated people for centuries. The earliest depiction of the Northern Lights may be in cave drawings dating back 30,000 years! The Northern Lights actually form part of Norse mythology. They also feature in Chinese legends about dragons. The Chinese believed that the lights signified the fight between good and evil, and ancient North Americans believed that the lights represented a pathway that led souls into heaven.
Legends aside, there is a science behind these spectacular atmospheric light shows as shown in this infographic. They happen when the sun sends electrically charged particles into our atmosphere. Solar winds blow electrons toward the earth. When these collide with atmospheric gas in the earth’s magnetic field, they create colorful displays that may include arcs, rays, and shimmering sheets of light. One of the best places to see the light is in Iceland.
Both the north and south poles experience similar magnificent shows of light. The displays can include shades of red, green, yellow, and violet though pink and light green are the most common. The light displays take place high up in the atmosphere at between 90 and 130 km above the earth. To put that in perspective, GPS satellites are just 20 km up.
The northern and southern lights are known as ‘Aurora Borealis’ and ‘Aurora Australis’ respectively. It means Dawn of the North and Dawn of the South. They are mirror images of each other, happening at the same time and containing the same patterns Though the lights in the south are not easily visible when they’re putting on a show in the north. This is because in summer the sun doesn’t set at the poles.