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What are the Northern Lights?

What are the Northern Lights?

The Northern Lights are a fantastic part of the natural world, one of the most spectacular sights you’ll ever see. Lots of us talk about going to Scandinavia or Canada to watch them in their full glory, but did you know you can also see them from the UK sometimes? That’s right – they are the “northern lights”, but they’ve been known to come down as far as East Anglia before. Of course, they’re not as magnificent as they are in the traditional wildernesses, but that unmistakeable green glow in the night sky is still part of the planet’s most amazing natural phenomenon.


Their scientific, Latin name is Aurora Borealis, which comes from the name of the Roman goddess of dawn – Aurora. Borealis comes from the Greek word for “north wind”. Fun fact – they were named by Galileo himself! So how do these lights occur? Well, some sort of magnetic storm happens in the Earth’s atmosphere. Gas particles in the atmosphere hit incoming electronically charged particles from the sun. The reason there are different colours is because these particles from the sun can hit any type of gas in the Earth’s atmosphere, and there are at least two different gases the particles are likely to hit. This collision produces light, and all these collisions together form the Northern lights.


For them to occur, there needs to be a high level of geomagnetic activity, and you’ll need to be quite close to the magnetic poles to see them. Plus, you’ll need those particles that come over from the sun. But thanks to modern science, we can actually predict when impressive displays are about to occur, even in Britain where you don’t see them very often!


As there are two magnetic poles on the Earth, there are also the Southern Lights. They’re caused by exactly the same thing, and follows the same patterns as the Northern Lights. These have frequently been seen in South America, New Zealand, and even Australia.


We know what these wonderful things in the sky are, now, but imagine living in a time before modern science! People who saw them thought they were signs from the gods, warning them of sometimes terrible things. Some Native American and First Nation tribes thought they were the spirits of the animals they had hunted (think Brother Bear), or the spirits of their dead ancestors. Folk tales also existed in Europe, and equally there were ideas about the Southern Lights too – the Maori people of New Zealand and some Australian tribes believed they were reflections of fires from far away.


Naturally, the beautiful rainbow patterns in the sky have attracted tourists to the regions you can see them. You have a better chance of seeing them in areas where there’s not much light pollution, so that’s why you can’t see them very well in the UK. We have too many towns and not much “dark sky” space in between them! So your best option is to visit Iceland or Scandinavia in the Autumn and Winter months, as this is when there is a higher amount of activity. Plus, you could combine it with a trip to the incredible Fjords of Norway. You can find plenty of package deals based on the Northern Lights – why not think about going on this once in a lifetime trip? I certainly am!


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