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   Whenever someone mentions the word “aurora”, many people may think of the Disney princess, or maybe even the Norwegian singer and song-writer. But, other possibilities include the Northern and Southern lights, otherwise known as “auroras”. These lights miraculously appear around the poles of the Earth, hence the name “Northern” and “Southern”. Commonly known as one of the “seven natural wonders of the world”, these lights have been appearing throughout history, as early as a French cave painting estimated to be around 30,000 years old. However, it begs the question of how these natural phenomena occur.


    These auroras are the natural products of the Sun and the Earth. More specifically, they are the result of the protons, electrons, and atmospheric particles involved within the process. The sun sends protons and electrons through the sun’s solar wind, into the Earth’s atmosphere. Inside of the atmosphere where the auroras occur, there lies neutral atmospheric atoms, such as oxygen and nitrogen. These atmospheric atoms react with the protons and electrons approaching from the sun, and enter an energized state, increasing their energy levels. This energized state occurs when the protons and electrons pass on energy to the outer valence electrons of the atoms, which increases their energy levels. As the energized atoms return to their original state, they emit a photon of light. The wavelengths of these lights that make up the auroras depend on the elements that emitted them. Oxygen atoms may produce a green color light at a wavelength of 558 nm, while nitrogen atoms produce a red color light at 630 nm. 


    These auroras also appear specifically around the poles of the Earth. This is because of the Earth’s magnetic pull around the poles. The magnetic pull around those areas is much stronger than the magnetic pull of most other places on Earth, meaning that the protons and electrons sent from solar winds are more so drawn towards the poles rather than other areas. This results in places like Alaska, Northern Canada, Greenland, and Iceland becoming great places for taking pictures of the Northern lights since they are in near proximity to the geographic North Pole. This also means places like New Zealand and Australia are also great places to take photos of the Southern lights, due to also being in closer proximity to the geographic South Pole.


    Although these auroras have been seen all throughout history, they have only been scientifically explained as early as the 20th century by Norwegian scientist Kristian Birkeland. He theorized that electrons emitted from sun spots can create atmospheric light after reacting with the Earth’s atmosphere. These lights were later named Aurora Borealis (The Northern Lights) and Aurora Australis (The Southern Lights). Although Birkeland’s theory and claims were proven to be correct, it wasn’t until after his death that his ideas were proven.


“Aurora: COSMOS.” Aurora | COSMOS, 

“What Is an Aurora?” NASA, NASA, 12 Aug. 2021, 

Waldek, Stefanie. “Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis): What They Are and How to See Them.”, Space, 16 Aug. 2021, 15139-northern-lights-auroras-earth-facts-sdcmp.html. 

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