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Auroras, always amazing

This article first appeared in the 1/10/20 edition of the Davis Enterprise.

Auroras, always amazing

Example of a curtin-like aurora borealis in the vicinity of Anchorage, Alaska. Photo from NOAA Photo Library

Auroras, always amazing


By Sara Thompson

Special to the Enterprise



Auroras are also known as northern lights, southern lights, or even just polar lights.  No matter what they are called, they create colorful light displays in the sky.  What causes these wonderful displays and where can we see them?


Auroras occur in both the north and south poles.  In the north they are called the Aurora borealis and Aurora australis in the south.  Several little things need to happen to cause both types of auroras, but it all begins with our sun.  The sun’s atmosphere releases charged particles and that flow continuously through our solar system, called solar wind.  When these particles reach our planet, they collide with the gas particles in our atmosphere.  These collisions are what create the bright displays of color.  The different colors are caused by different gas particles, and at different altitudes.  The most common color viewed is pale yellow and greens, which are oxygen molecules under 100 miles above the earth.  Red auroras are also oxygen, but are at much higher altitudes, over 200 miles above the earth, and are much rarer.  Blues and purples are caused by nitrogen in our atmosphere.


The charged particles from the sun can hit the Earth anywhere but are usually defected by our magnetic field.  The earth’s magnetic field is weakest at the poles, which is not the sun’s charged particles enter the atmosphere there and thus generating the colorful auroras.  They can occur at any time of day, but are most visible on a clear night, away from light pollution.  Places like Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland, Norway, and many other high northern latitude places are subject to see the northern aurora borealis.  Similarly, the southern aurora australis is seen in high southern latitude places, such as Antarctica, Australia, and New Zealand.  In both instances, wintertime also helps, as there is increased amounts of darkness and night hours.


Auroras are not unique to earth, there are images from telescopes and spacecraft that show aururas on other planets!  The gas giants of Jupiter and Saturn have strong magnetic fields surrounding them, stronger than Earth’s.  Even though their magnetic fields are strong, they are also weakest at the poles and also have spectacular aurora light shows.


Not everything is known about auroras and their causes.  Scientists continue to study them, and all aspects of our solar system.  We can only hope to view more of these spectacular light displays on our own planet, and others.




Explorit's coming events:


  • Check out Explorit’s Light & Sound Exhibit!  We are open to the public on Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 1-5pm.  Admission is only $5 per person, free for Members, teachers with school ID, ASTC, and ages 2 and under.


  • Become a member of Explorit!  Membership grants you free visits to Explorit’s regular public hours, discounts on events, camps, and workshops, and gives you ASTC benefits.  For more information or to purchase or renew your membership visit or call Explorit at 530-756-0191.


  • The last chance to enroll in Explorit’s Nature Bowl team is approaching quickly.  This is an afterschool science team from students grades 3-6.  Call (530) 756-0191 to register.  The $25 fee covers weekly meetings and a t-shirt.



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