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13 Fun Facts About the Northern Lights

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After the total solar eclipse came the northern lights. In a phenomenon not witnessed in many parts of the world for about two decades, the Northern Lights were witnessed in different parts of the world, including the USA. Unusually far south, these mesmerizing lights, typically seen closer to the Arctic, have painted the night skies in vibrant hues.

This rare phenomenon, driven by intense solar activities, has sparked a wave of excitement and curiosity. Communities from states not commonly privy to this spectacle, including some as far south as Colorado and Nebraska, have shared awe-inspiring images and experiences of the Northern Lights, igniting discussions and interest in this natural wonder.

The Northern Lights, or aurora borealis, are one of nature’s most spectacular phenomena, drawing travelers and enthusiasts from around the globe to witness their ethereal beauty. Here are thirteen fun facts about the Northern Lights that make them even more fascinating.

What Causes the Northern Lights?

North America earth at night
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The Northern Lights are caused by solar particles colliding with gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. When the sun emits charged particles during solar flares and coronal mass ejections, these particles travel toward Earth and are drawn toward the magnetic poles.

As the particles interact with gases such as oxygen and nitrogen in the atmosphere, they produce beautiful light displays that we love to watch.

1. They’re Constantly Changing in Shape

Green northern lights above mountains and ocean shore. Night winter landscape with aurora and reflection on the water surface. Natural background in
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The Northern Lights are natural artists, constantly changing their shape and form across the night sky. This beautiful dance happens when particles from the sun meet the Earth’s magnetic field. The shape of the aurora changes based on the strength and direction of these particles, making every viewing experience unique.

Auroras are beautiful and always changing, so every time you see them, it’s a different experience. One moment, they may form a curtain-like shape; the next, they might appear as spirals or dynamic rays shooting across the horizon.

2. They’re Not Just Green

Northern lights of many shades of color Lapland
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While green is the most common color of the Northern Lights, they can also appear in hues of red, blue, purple, and pink. This depends on which gas molecules from Earth’s atmosphere are interacting with solar particles. Oxygen molecules create the green and red lights, while nitrogen atoms produce the blue and purple colors.

In some instances, when solar activity is particularly high, all of these colors can be seen at once in a stunning display that resembles a rainbow across the sky.

3. The Sound of Silence? Not Quite

Northern lights over lake
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The aurora borealis is not just a visual experience; it can also be an auditory one. When solar particles collide with Earth’s atmosphere, they create vibrations that produce a faint crackling or rustling sound. This can sometimes be heard by those close to the Northern Lights.

The sound is usually too faint for humans to hear, and it often gets drowned out by other noises in nature. However, there have been reports of people hearing a whirring or hissing sound during particularly strong auroras.

4. They’re Not Exclusive to the North Pole

Beautiful northern lights of the northern part of the planet. Magnificent views of the ocean and northern lights with rocks and stones. Beautiful sea water plays with colors and light
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While they are most commonly seen near the Arctic, the Northern Lights can also be seen in other parts of the world. In fact, they have been spotted as far south as Mexico and Cuba!

This happens because the Earth’s magnetic field is stronger near the poles, letting sun particles enter our atmosphere more easily. However, during strong solar storms, they can appear much further south and create a stunning show for those lucky enough to witness it.

5. They’re an Ancient Phenomenon

Aurora borealis over a track in winter, Finnish Lapland
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This colorful phenomenon dates back to Biblical times. There are recordings of the northern lights around 679-655 B.C. by Assyrian astronomers. The Chinese also recorded the spectacle in 2600 BC, where it was described as “dragons in the sky.”

Ancient civilizations saw auroras as signs or messages from the gods, adding mystery and cultural importance to them. The Greeks even believed that the auroras were the goddess of dawn, Eos, riding her chariot across the sky.

6. They’re Not Just an Earthly Phenomenon

Image of one Digital Fractal on Black Color
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Earth isn’t the only planet that experiences auroras. Other planets in our solar system, including Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, also have their own versions of the Northern Lights, caused by similar interactions between the solar wind and the planet’s magnetic field.

Extraterrestrial auroras help scientists learn about the magnetic fields and atmospheres of other planets. This understanding also sheds light on Earth’s magnetic environment and how it interacts with the sun.

7. No Two Auroras Are Alike

Aurora borealis in night northern sky. Ionization of air particl
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Just like snowflakes, no two Northern Lights displays are the same. Each aurora is a unique event with its own patterns, movements, and colors. This uniqueness is part of what makes chasing the Northern Lights so exciting; you never know exactly what spectacle awaits you.

The unpredictable nature of auroras ensures that each sighting is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Seeing one isn’t isn’t seeing them all. You’ll be in for a treat each time.

8. They Travel at The Speed of Light

Northern Lights, Aurora borealis with mountains in background over Senja, Norway
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Despite their serene appearance, auroras move incredibly fast, with charged particles reaching speeds of up to 45 million miles per hour as they collide with the Earth’s atmosphere. This high-speed interaction is what ignites the sky with the breathtaking light show we know and love.

The speed and intensity of the aurora can greatly vary, influenced by the strength of the solar wind and the Earth’s magnetic environment during the interaction. This adds to the dynamic and ever-changing spectacle of the Northern Lights.

9. They’re Not Easy to Predict

Man and telescope
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Predicting when and where the Northern Lights will appear is a complex task. Scientists use data from solar observations and geomagnetic indices to estimate auroral activity. They’re usually on an 11-year cycle, and the current cycle is expected to peak again in 2025, but the exact timing and location of auroras remain a mystery.

This unpredictability makes chasing the Northern Lights an adventure that requires lots of patience. Though predictions have improved over the years, the inherent unpredictability of solar wind means that forecasters can usually only provide a few days’ notice of potential auroral activity.

10. How The Colors Form

Unusual Arctic winter landscape - Frozen fjord & Northern Lights
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The varying colors of the Northern Lights are due to the type of gas molecules the solar particles collide within the Earth’s atmosphere. Oxygen high up, over 150 miles high, makes a rare red aurora, while lower down, at about 60 miles, it makes the more common green aurora.

Nitrogen molecules contribute to the blue or purplish-red hues often seen on the fringe of green light. These colors create a mesmerizing rainbow effect during a particularly intense aurora.

11. Greens is The Most Popular Colour

Northern Lights also known as Aurora Borealis over Scandinavia in Northern Norway. High quality photo
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The most common aurora color is green, appearing in most auroras. This is because there’s more oxygen in our atmosphere than nitrogen at the altitude where the Northern Lights occur.

The vibrant green hue they produce is caused by the excited oxygen atoms emitting photons as they return to their normal state. Besides, it’s much easier for the human eye to see green than any other color.

12. Best Times to View

The polar arctic Northern lights aurora borealis sky star in Norway Svalbard in Longyearbyen city man people mountains
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The northern lights favor the night owls, as the prime viewing time is typically between 9 PM and 2 AM local time. That’s because the Earth is facing away from the sun, and the sky is dark enough to make auroras visible.

If you’re in northern latitudes, your best bet for seeing them is during winter when it’s darkest and coldest with clear skies. However, there are exceptions, and auroras can be seen year-round if conditions are right.

13. They Were Named in 1916

Northern Lights, moonlight beach of Haukland, Lofoten, Norway, Europe
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What’s in a name? Even the northern lights are happy to have one. The term “Aurora Borealis” was coined by French astronomer Pierre Gassendi in 1619, who named the phenomenon after the Roman goddess of dawn and her Greek counterpart.

Similarly, the southern lights were named “Aurora Australis” by Sir John Ross in 1840, also after the Roman goddess. The names stuck, and we still use them today to describe these stunning displays of light in the sky.


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