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spectacular red and green northern lights display If you have ever seen an aurora light up the night sky with its shifting waterfall of colors, you've seen one of the most amazing shows nature can offer.  What causes an aurora?  When charged particles from the magnetosphere collide with atoms in the earth's upper atmosphere, they absorb extra energy that is expressed as light.  As the sun causes hydrogen and helium to fuse, protons and electrons are shot into space.  Known as the solar wind, this stream of particles blows past the earth.  As they blow past the earth, the earth's lines of magnetism draw the particles toward the north and south magnetic poles, where these lines converge.  When the particles arrive in the ionosphere, they collide with gas atoms and emit light.  The color of light they emit depends upon the type of gas the particles collide with.  Light that is dominated by emissions from atomic oxygen causes a greenish and dark-red glow.  Blue light is a result of atomic nitrogen, while purple light is the result of molecular nitrogen.  Many other colors can also be seen.

pink aurora borealis and deciduous tree branches Auroras occur in both hemispheres, and the aurora in the northern hemisphere is called the aurora borealis, or northern lights.  The aurora borealis gets its name from the mythical Roman goddess of the dawn, Aurora, and the Greek name for north wind, Boreas.  The aurora borealis can often be seen on the northern horizon; it frequently appears as a reddish glow, as if the sun were rising in the wrong direction.  The aurora borealis is most often seen during the months of September, October, March, and April.

northern lights - alberta, canada In many areas on northern latitudes, the aurora borealis was seen as a symbol of approaching doom, and the phenomenon was regarded with fear and superstition.  As a result, the aurora borealis is prevalent in folklore and myth, especially among the Inuit people who live in the high, northern latitudes.  One myth says that the aurora borealis is past ancestors, while another myth says that the aurora borealis is telling stories of what happened in the past and what will happen in the future.

Green Aurora Borealis Over Snowy Mountains

Fairbanks, Alaska, is known as one of the best places in the world to see the aurora borealis.  It usually appears in the sky as light green, light yellow, and pink wisps, curtains, pillars, pinwheels, and haloes of light that seem to wave and vibrate.

colorful northern lights seen from Fairbanks, Alaska

Comprehensive information about the Aurora Borealis, as well as lists of Aurora Borealis resources, can be found on the University of Michigan's Aurora page and the University of Alaska Geophysical Institute's Auroral Forecast page.  An impressive Northern Lights image gallery can be found at Virtual Finland.

multi-colored aurora borealis at twilight green northern lights at twilight

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Aurora Borealis Description and Photographs