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You Saw the Northern Lights Where?!

You Saw the Northern Lights Where?!

You Saw the Northern Lights Where?!

The first time I put together a bucket list I was about 13 years old. However, this was no ordinary bucket list. This special list resided on my battered and bruised iPod Touch and was made up of screenshots of a series of Tumblr posts about ‘things to do before you die’ (I started young..). 2013 was an interesting time for the internet, I beg that we never go back… There were 100-plus items on this list but I only remember one. It was the one thing I’d always wanted to do in my life and still do to this day. It’s not jumping out of a plane like my brother or conquering the world like my oldest brother but simply (and like many others) I wanted to see the Northern Lights.

There are 2 reasons you might be led to believe I’ve achieved this already - the week I spent in Iceland in high school and the fact that the Northern Lights were seen over Scotland, as well as across much of Britain and Ireland on the 26th and 27th of February. In actuality, we never saw them in Iceland, when they appeared in Scotland on the 26th I was asleep and had no clue what was going on, and on the 27th when they appeared again there was cloud cover (and I was also asleep).


Growing up I was under the impression the Northern Lights were something you had to travel far & wide to see. Imagine my shock when I grew up and heard about all the different places you could spot them and then imagine my reaction to hearing that they were right on my doorstep but I was being a responsible 22-year-old and getting my 8 hours! All of this has made me realise that there is so much I don’t know about the phenomenon I’ve sought out since childhood so let’s learn about it together. 

The Northern Light's official Name is Aurora Borealis

The proper name for the Northern Lights is Aurora Borealis, a name penned by Galileo Galilei in 1916. Aurora comes from the name of the Roman Goddess of Dawn, and Borealis comes from the name of the Greek God of the North Wind. The Northern Lights counterparts the Southern Lights are called Aurora Australis and together they make up Aurora Polaris or Polar Light. These Auroras have graced our skies possibly since the dawn of time. The first possible recorded sighting was 30,000 years ago and was drawn on the wall of a cave in France. Long ago, people thought the lights were magical or signs from Gods or omens which lead to many myths and legends spawning from the lights. People treated them with respect and often worshipped them but many also feared the lights and their meaning. But what causes this spectacle that has enchanted humans throughout time?

The Northern Lights are a result of activity occurring in the upper atmosphere (corona) of the sun. Solar flares or storms on the sun’s surface create solar wind (geomagnetic storms) which is essentially a giant cloud full of electrically charged particles (electrons & protons) that are emitted into space. These particles can travel for millions of miles and at speeds of 45 million miles per hour. After roughly 2 days, some of the particles may reach the Earth and collide with its upper atmosphere (ionosphere). 98% of these particles are deflected but the 2% that aren’t are then caught in the Earth’s magnetic field - an invisible force which protects our planet and us in turn. The magnetic field then redirects these particles towards the Northern and Southern Poles of our planet.

The particles will smash into the atoms and molecules that make up the Earth’s atmosphere and essentially heat them - this process is called excitation and is what creates the stunning colours of the Northern Lights in the same way when a gas I heated it may emit a distinct glow. The 2 main gases in our atmosphere are Nitrogen and Oxygen - Nitrogen creates the majestic green colour we most associate with the Northern Lights, and Oxygen creates the purple/pink/blue/scarlet colours we also see. The wavy pattern we see, as well as the almost curtain-like appearance of the lights, is caused by lines of force in our ionosphere. These patterns fluctuate and change as our planet rotates and solar flare activity increases. 

The Northern Lights create glowing rings around the top and bottom of our Earth. The lowest part of which is about 80 miles above the Earth's surface while the top of the Northern Lights can reach heights of several thousand miles above our planet! During stronger geomagnetic storms, the Northern Lights can be seen as far South as the US. Additionally, many people are unaware but the Northern and Southern Lights tend to appear at the same time however due to inverted seasons on the opposite poles, they are very rarely visible at the same time! Even if we can’t see the lights though, they’re always there waiting for a clear, dark sky so they can impress us again and again. There are even Auroras on other planets with magnetic fields such as Uranus, Jupiter, Neptune, Saturn, and even Mars. So… if aliens are real we can all bond over the pretty lights!

While the Northern Lights might give you a surprise by suddenly appearing over Helensburgh one night, they generally appear in the region of the Northern Hemisphere which includes: Northern Norway, Sweden, Alaska, Russia, Canada, Finland, Svalbard, Iceland, and Greenland.

Now, we know a lot more about the lights than the cavemen or Vikings did, we have scientific facts that explain them and how they occur but even then, don’t these breathtaking lights that dance across our skies still seem like magic?

Holly Myers


  • Great blog

    Angela myers on

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