It’s been stormy on the sun lately, and you know what that means: Northern lights! NASA reported a massive solar flare occurred on August 1, with the ejected material rushing toward earth at the staggering rate of 2.2 million miles per hour. The NASA report also noted that solar storms may be expected to increase over the next couple years. So watch for the northern lights and also announcements of upcoming displays in the news and on your local weather reports.
We now know that northern lights result from solar storms that produce strong solar winds. Eventually these solar winds collide with the gases and ions near the magnetic poles forming aurora borealis in the northern hemisphere and aurora australis in the southern hemisphere. The phenomenon is often compared to a neon sign with the gas being the ionosphere (not neon), and the magnetic field acting as a current instead of copper wire.
I still remember the first time I saw northern lights as a kid, and I would bet many of you can as well. But even knowing the cause, they still elicit a sense of wonder and awe.
Northern lights play a variety of roles in Norse mythology. One explanation views them as the flicker of the Valkyrior’s (warlike virgins) armor as they rode the sky. Another Norse myth that may have been inspired by northern lights is of the bridge “Bifrost,” a burning, trembling arch that allowed the Gods to travel from the heavens to earth. Some even viewed northern lights as reflections of large swarms of herring.
The Inuit thought they were a visualization of spirits in the sky playing a game of football with a walrus skull. Other Native American cultures interpreted them as spirits, harbingers of good weather, gods dancing across the sky.
The first explanation I heard as a kid growing up in Iowa was that they were caused by sunlight reflecting off the polar caps. That captured my sense of wonder a few decades ago, and the sense of wonder is still there. I hope you will watch for the northern lights. No doubt they will pique your sense of wonder too.
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.
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