The Science of Northern Lights

The northern lights in Norway is especially remarkable because of the backdrop of scenery. Jagged mountains, seductive seas, and a high probability of a display, especially in Northern Norway.

A great deal of what we now know about the science of northern lights actually began in Norway! Scientist Kristian Olaf Bernhard Birkeland (1867 – 1917) of Oslo, then Christiania, is best remembered as researching and creating theories of atmospheric electric currents thereby illuminating the very nature of the aurora borealis. 

How Northern Lights Work

Greatly simplified, charged particles are hurled away from the sun through solar flares and storms, then carried across our solar system.

Particles near our planet are pulled into the Earth’s atmosphere by its magnetic field. Of course, this is strongest at the North and South magnetic poles.

  • Northern lights, also called aurora borealis, are seen in the Northern hemisphere.
  • Southern lights, or aurora australis, are seen in the Southern hemisphere.

Types of Auroras

There are four primary types of auroras.

  • An arc aurora curves across the night sky with a shape like a rainbow.
  • A corona aurora seems to have a center with rays pointing outward, sort of like a starburst.
  • A diffuse aurora is rare and can be hard to see. It is like a featureless blur of light which is often confused for a cloud. The difference is that you can’t see through the moisture of a cloud, but, you can see star light shining through the aurora.
  • Drapery aurora is the most common type. It looks like curtains of colored light moving across the sky.

It is quite possible to see more than one type in the sky at the same time.

How Northern Lights Make Color

The charged particles collide with specific atoms, primarily oxygen and nitrogen, releasing flashes of colored light. Since the density of the atmosphere changes with altitude so does the color.

  • Red light occurs at altitudes of 150 miles, and above (most rare)
  • Green light occurs at altitudes of 100-150 miles (most common)
  • Purple light occurs at altitudes of 60-100 miles
  • Blue light occurs at altitudes up to 60 miles above the Earth

These colors can also combine to create other colors like yellow, pink, or purple. Additionally, infrared and ultraviolet light, x-ray emissions, and other effects have been measured.

It’s amazing! A two hour telegraph conversation was once held using just electricity along the wires drawn from Northern lights! Don’t worry, however; they won’t hurt you and it is highly unlikely that you will feel the least bit of electricity from them.

Practical tips on planning your aurora vacation and the best time to see northern lights in Norway are just a click away!

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