Tripping the light fantastic

By Phil Plait | November 3, 2011 7:00 am

In the past few months the Sun has come roaring back to life, blasting out flares and fierce waves of subatomic particles. These space storms are caused by the magnetic field of the Sun, which stores huge amounts of energy. Near sunspots the magnetic field lines get tangled and can suddenly erupt, hurling that energy into space.

If these tsunamis of particles head our way, they interact with our own planet’s magnetic field. Through complicated processes, the particles are focused down into our atmosphere, where they light it up (literally) like a neon sign. The result: aurorae, also called the northern (or southern) lights.

During a recent storm, photographer Dave Brosha was up in Yellowknife, in Canada’s Northwest Territories, which is at a latitude of 62° north, not all that far south of the Arctic Circle. The aurora display that night was, well, unearthly. He got some amazing shots, including this one:

[Click to stimulatedemissionate.]

Wow. That’s breathtaking. The silhouette belongs to photographer Thomas Koidhis, also a Canadian from the NWT. The stream of green aurora is simple amazing, like a solid path you could walk right into the sky. The Milky Way hangs as a backdrop, the constellations of Cygnus and Lyra punctuating the glowing stream.

He has many more such gorgeous shots in his Flickr set, and I particularly like this one, which shows the ribbons and curved streamers of the lights, caused by the curves in the Earth’s magnetic field itself.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it many more times in the future: people who say science takes away the magic of reality are wrong. The aurorae are among the most beautiful and amazing sights that nature has to offer, and their beauty is enhanced, magnified, by knowing what it is that causes them.

Knowing is half the fun. The other half? Finding out.

Credit: Dave Brosha, used by permission.

Related posts:

Gorgeous aurorae
Stunning Finnish aurora time lapse
The Hunter, the station, and the southern lights
Southern lights greet ISS and Atlantis

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures
MORE ABOUT: aurorae, Dave Brosha

Comments (15)

  1. gopher65

    Wow, that second one you linked is incredible. Without a doubt one of the finest auroral images I’ve seen. I hope you consider it for your picture of the year list this year.

  2. Daniel J. Andrews

    Yep, second image is gorgeous. Curiously, this is the first time I recall hearing/reading that the curves are caused by curves in the Earth’s magnetic field itself. Cool!

  3. Robert Gibson

    I almost expect to see Jack Horkheimer sitting on the edge of the aurora!

  4. Gary Ansorge

    A fine bridge there. Odin would be proud.

    Gary 7

  5. Nigel Depledge

    What a stunning pic!

  6. Joseph G

    I like how the plane of the Milky Way Xes the aurora sheet at that jaunty angle :)

  7. Ron1

    Although it really is a nice picture, it doesn’t do justice to the real thing which is so much more grand, particularly when experienced in an arctic winter, north of 60N lat.

    I know because I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to have spent almost twenty years living in the arctic (1980-1998) and to have witnessed almost nightly aurora, including a few truly stunning, spectacular, events. During those rare extreme events, (compared to the nightly, garden variety bright aurora) the entire night sky was covered in pulsing ribbons and streams of bright light that was centred directly overhead — bright, curtains of green, pink and red that moved so fast, both horizontally and vertically, they absolutely filled the sky.

    While the extreme events were generally short lived (20-30 minutes) they were always part of ordinary events that would go on for hours and hours, albeit at reduced intensity and scope, but still gorgeous.

    The effect was further enhanced because the aurora was bright enough to be reflected by the snow underfoot. Wow, I still get goosebumps when I think about those events and, for anyone interested in aurora tourism, Yellowknife, Whitehorse and other communities around 60N latitude are excellent locations to observe bright aurora (winter is better because of dark skies). Contact the governments of Nunuvut or Yukon for more information.

    On the other hand, I also remember nights when an ordinary aurora was simply a pain in the butt because the light so badly affected seeing — trying to observe deep sky objects with a telescope was a waste of time because of auroral light pollution. Unfortunately, this happened on a lot of otherwise perfectly clear nights.

    Also, interestingly enough, during the years when I lived in Cambridge Bay, NWT (69N lat.) I remember rarely seeing the aurora because I was too far north. When I did see the aurora, it was just a faint glow on the southern horizon.

    As well, in all the years that I observed those lights, I never ever heard them make any sounds.


  8. Crux Australis

    Oh, how I wish I could see an aurora!

  9. Troy McConaghy

    I wonder if you could write a post about why there can be ribbons and layers like that. It’s not intuitive. After all, the Earth has a dipole magnetic field, more or less (?), and dipole fields don’t have any kind of layer structure.

  10. Thameron

    “The aurorae are among the most beautiful and amazing sights that nature has to offer,”

    I agree.

    “and their beauty is enhanced, magnified, by knowing what it is that causes them. ”

    That is an unsupported assertion. I would have thought that the general disinterest in science displayed by the public would have already informed you that a majority of the people in this country are not like you. Clearly that message has not gotten through. Beauty appreciation and ‘crafting’ appreciation are two absolutely separate issues. Having watched movies with actors who are all about dissecting camera angles and appropriate scores and such I can tell you that dwelling on the details of how something came to be can detract from experiencing it as a totality. And I have no intention of ever investigating how sausage is made. Knowing what causes an aurora will not necessarily enhance or detract from your experience thereof.

  11. vince charles

    I quite enjoyed watching my grandmother and mother make sausage, and enjoyed eating it, too. Those two feelings are connected… It’s commercial sausage I’m wary about. And yet I still have a curiosity, a healthy curiosity, and on some level morbid if nothing else. It’s the same with everything: the sky, the sea, animals, clocks and other household gadgets, my bike, my first motorcycle…

  12. Messier Tidy Upper

    Wow. Love this aurora borealis image. :-)

    Very well done, Thomas Koidhis – thanks. :-)

    (Incidentally, saw an aurora calander in the local newsagent the other day – &, no, I’m not referring there to one about a girl with that name! ūüėČ )

  13. Joseph G

    I would agree with thameron, provisionally: I think it really depends on one’s personality. I think there’s a certain personality type, members of whom are drawn to science, which takes delight in finding the “why” behind everything. Most scientists fall into this category, obviously, as well as many “armchair” science fans such as myself. For us, understanding how things work connects us to the universe. There’s a feeling, not “spiritual” necessarily, but oneness, that comes from learning about what makes things tick, and coming from that to an understanding that the same physical laws that power our bodies also affect things 60, 60000, or even 6 quadrillion miles away.
    I’m sure there are people who don’t share that fascination. It makes me sad to think that they’re deprived of the joy that can be had from observing the things nature has to offer all around us, but then, we’re all different, and we all have different perspectives to bring to the table.

  14. Joseph G

    @11 MTU: I have to admit, choosing between the aurora calendar and the Aurora calendar would be a tough call for me ūüėČ

  15. Oh no, Galactus built a light saber!

    On second thought, at least he’s a jedi and not a sith.


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