The Sinister Secret of the Northern Lights

August 28th, 2019

by Andrea Lloyd

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Earth is precariously placed between two invisible barriers, that if the universe had placed the planet outside of, it would have rendered the planet inhabitable. Subject to temperatures too hot or too cold. 

This circumstellar habitable zone  – aka the Goldilocks zone, known for orbiting around a star so that it supports liquid water – is one of the unique characteristics of our home amongst our solar system.

Behind the Beauty of Northern Lights

The astrophysical and geological events that occurred over billions of years resulted in our reliance on a delicate balance of Earth’s various systems.

Usually, human beings take this for granted. We shrug off off the gift of life and focus on the screens set before us, muddied down in the day-to-day and hour-to-hour.

That’s not to say that reading from a screen is a bad thing. You’re reading this right now, aren’t you? It’s to say sometimes we should take a step back to understand the wonders around us.

Lights, for example. Not the kind found in a household, but the natural, breathtaking Northern Lights that shine in brilliant colors in the Arctic and Antarctic regions. If you haven’t seen the magnificent display, its greens, reds, and blues radiate brightly over glistening snow.

The aurora borealis and aurora australis, the scientific name for the natural display of lights, almost exclusively occur at the poles. Interestingly, auroras are caused by disturbances in the magnetosphere from our resident star, the Sun.

Diving into the Importance of the Magnetosphere

Earth is comprised of a series of systems, cycles, and “spheres,” which enable it to function. From our climate, biosphere, water cycle, life as we know it would not exist without these routines.

One of these vital systems, the magnetosphere, makes up a planet’s magnetic field. It is the realm where electric charges move. It’s how magnets attract and repel forces.

Gusts of solar wind hit Earth’s magnetic field, causing charged solar particles to rain down over the poles, lighting up the atmosphere when it collides.

As innocent as it sounds, solar winds are energized streams of charged electrons and protons flowing outward from the Sun at roughly 560 miles per second (900 km/s) in the form of plasma, at a temperature of 1.8 million °F (1 million °C). 

The relentless solar winds could strip the Earth of its protective atmospheric layers, our shield to the Sun’s dangerous ultraviolet radiation. For visual comparison, Mars lost its bubble of magnetism billions of years ago. This left our red neighbor in its present state: oceanless, barren, lifeless. Thankfully, Earth has retained its magnetosphere, giving us a different fate.

If there were no magnetic field, we might have a very different atmosphere left without life as we know it

notes Eftyhia Zesta of the Geospace Physics Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Earth’s magnetosphere has seemed to protect our atmosphere, which is key to protecting a variety of planetary systems and cycles.

The Northern Lights: A Tale as Old as Time 

While auroras have been seen by ancients Greeks, Norse, Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians, the lights often don’t venture farther than the Earth’s poles, where the auroral zones are.

That’s not to say that they don’t. At the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 14, 1862, an aurora was seen through the Gulf States, presumably caused by a large solar flare.

Frederic Edwin Church painted an interpretation of the lights seen during the Civil War, completed in 1865, showing the interpretation of the end of the bloody conflict.

A powerful geomagnetic storm in 1859 wrought havoc on the local telegraph systems around the world.

English amateur astronomers Richard Carrington and Richard Hodgson independently recorded a solar flare.

On August 29, auroras australis were seen as far north as Queensland, Australia, about 2224 miles (3579 km) more north than they are typically seen in Queenstown, New Zealand.

A few days later on September 1, auroras were seen in the Caribbean and the Rocky Mountains, in addition to Europe, Hawaii, and Japan.

The lights were so bright in the Northeast US, that people were reading the newspapers.

Known as the Carrington flare, a coronal mass ejection (CME) caused all of this disruption. This significant release of plasma from the Sun’s corona, or most surface layer, goes into the solar winds.  In turn, they interact with the Earth’s magnetosphere and cause the resulting auroras.

When a CME launches from the sun, the solar winds typically take several days to reach Earth.

The Carrington flare appeared at Earth in an astounding 17.6 hours. This flare is considered the most spectacular in recent recorded history.

There’s Still So Much To Learn about the Northern Lights

A series could be dedicated to the uniqueness of the Blue Marble, focusing on aspects that we don’t see in our everyday norms, but we couldn’t live without.

Honestly, most people haven’t heard of the magnetosphere, let alone its interactions with the sun.

However, our lives are written in these details, that fortunately allow us to reside on this habitable planet.

Want more science now?

Check out our news page where we post interesting studies and discussions (sometimes mocking them mercilessly) for more.

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