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An Appreciation Post for the Northern Lights

Photo by David Becker via Unsplash

My unsolicited opinion: the northern lights remain the single most intriguing natural phenomenon to exist on our planet. Sure, I’m familiar with volcanic lightning and Antarctica’s Blood Falls. Still, the northern lights stand in a secluded supremacy, untouchable and untoppable by other natural wonders.


How do they work, anyway?

The aurora borealis (or, if you’re in the Southern hemisphere, the aurora australis) emerge when particles from the Sun’s atmosphere and the Earth’s atmosphere come into contact with one another. In most places above the Earth’s surface, this type of interaction is limited as a result of the protection from our planet’s magnetic field. At the most extreme northern and southern points — the poles — the magnetic field is not nearly as strong, allowing these two groups of particles to mingle more freely. This dynamic explains the whereabouts of some of the best viewing spots, including Greenland, Iceland, and Alaska.

If you’re curious about how the lights get their peculiar colors, part of the answer lies in that periodic table that’s been crumpled in a drawer somewhere since freshman year. Specific types of particles involved will lead to different color lights. For example, the involvement of nitrogen can result in some red action, while oxygen might bring green or yellow. Elevation levels at which this interplay occurs will also impact which colors meet the eye. 

As if all of this weren’t cool enough, Earth isn’t the only planet on which auroras take place — bodies including Neptune, Venus, and Saturn are also privy to auroras of their own. 

Hold on….Have you ever even seen the northern lights?

No, no I have not, although I appreciate your curiosity. Perhaps some day when I am living out my dream of buying property in Oslo and surviving solely on a diet of Norwegian salmon. 

So what’s the big deal?

It’s the universal bucket list item! This elusive natural phenomenon seems to escape everything we assume to be true about the world. Where we tend to think of the night sky as dark and foreboding, speckled only with stars and red-eye flights, the northern lights remind us of the playfulness and the animation of our landscape, of light’s ability to persist through darkness.

The northern lights are veritable proof of the beauty and synergy that come alongside stepping beyond our immediate groups. If atmospheric particles can create something awe-inspiring and meaningful when they come together, why can’t we do the same? 

Have you ever seen the northern lights? Let us know in the poll below!

Photo by David Becker via Unsplash

  • Have you been able to witness the northern lights?

    • Yes!
    • Sadly no


Written by Megan Pontin

Enthusiastic word-collector, avid pancake-consumer, and experienced hammock-lounger. Student at Cornell University.

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