Auroras (north/south polar lights; or aurorae, sing.: aurora) are natural light displays in the sky, usually observed at night, particularly in the polar zone. They typically occur in the ionosphere. Some scientists call them "polar auroras". In northern latitudes, the effect is known as the aurora borealis, named after the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek name for north wind, Boreas. The aurora borealis is also called the northern polar lights, as it is only visible in the sky from the Northern Hemisphere, the chance of visibility increasing with proximity to the northern magnetic pole, which is currently in the arctic islands of northern Canada. Aurorae seen near the magnetic pole may be high overhead, but from further away, they illuminate the northern horizon as a greenish glow or sometimes a faint red, as if the sun was rising from an unusual direction. The aurora borealis most often occurs from September to October and from March to April. The Cree call this phenomenon the Dance of the Spirits.
Its southern counterpart, the aurora australis/southern polar lights, has similar properties, but is only visible from high southern latitudes in Antarctica, South America or Australasia. Australis is the Latin word for "of the South".
Benjamin Franklin first brought attention to the "mystery of the Northern Lights." He theorized the shifting lights to a concentration of electrical charges in the polar regions intensified by the snow and other moisture.
The collisions in the atmosphere electronically excite atoms and molecules in the upper atmosphere. The excitation energy can be lost by light emission or collisions. Most aurorae are green and red emission from atomic oxygen. Molecular nitrogen and nitrogen ions produce some low level red and very high blue/violet aurorae. The light blue colors are produced by ionic nitrogen and the neutral nitrogen gives off the red and purple color with the rippled edges. Different gases interacting with the upper atmosphere will produce different colors, caused by the different compounds of oxygen and nitrogen. The level of solar wind activity from the Sun can also influence the color of the aurorae.
The similarity to curtains is often enhanced by folds called "striations. When the field line guiding a bright auroral patch leads to a point directly above the observer, the aurora may appear as a "corona" of diverging rays, an effect of perspective.
Although it was first mentioned by Ancient Greek explorer/geographer Pytheas, Hiorter and Celsius first described in 1741 evidence for magnetic control, namely, large magnetic fluctuations occurred whenever the aurora was observed overhead. This indicates (it was later realized) that large electric currents were associated with the aurora, flowing in the region where auroral light originated. Kristian Birkeland (1908) deduced that the currents flowed in the east-west directions along the auroral arc, and such currents, flowing from the dayside towards (approximately) midnight were later named "auroral electrojets" (see also Birkeland currents).
On 26 February 2008, THEMIS probes were able to determine, for the first time, the triggering event for the onset of magnetospheric substorms that produce Aurorae. Two of the five probes, positioned approximately one third the distance to the moon, measured events suggesting a magnetic reconnection event 96 seconds prior to Auroral intensification. "Our data show clearly and for the first time that magnetic reconnection is the trigger," said Angelopoulos.
Still more evidence for a magnetic connection are the statistics of auroral observations. Elias Loomis (1860) and later in more detail Hermann Fritz (1881) established that the aurora appeared mainly in the "auroral zone", a ring-shaped region with a radius of approximately 2500 km around Earth's magnetic pole. It was hardly ever seen near the geographic pole, which is about 2000 km away from the magnetic pole. The instantaneous distribution of auroras ("auroral oval", Yasha/Jakob Feldstein 1963) is slightly different, centered about 3-5 degrees nightward of the magnetic pole, so that auroral arcs reach furthest towards the equator around midnight. The aurora can be seen best at this time.
The Earth is constantly immersed in the solar wind, a rarefied flow of hot plasma (gas of free electrons and positive ions) emitted by the Sun in all directions, a result of the million-degree heat of the Sun's outermost layer, the solar corona. The solar wind usually reaches Earth with a velocity around 400 km/s, density around 5 ions/cc and magnetic field intensity around 2–5 nT (nanoteslas; Earth's surface field is typically 30,000–50,000 nT). These are typical values. During magnetic storms, in particular, flows can be several times faster; the interplanetary magnetic field (IMF) may also be much stronger.
The IMF originates on the Sun, related to the field of sunspots, and its field lines (lines of force) are dragged out by the solar wind. That alone would tend to line them up in the Sun-Earth direction, but the rotation of the Sun skews them (at Earth) by about 45 degrees, so that field lines passing Earth may actually start near the western edge ("limb") of the visible sun.
Earth's magnetosphere is the space region dominated by its magnetic field. It forms an obstacle in the path of the solar wind, causing it to be diverted around it, at a distance of about 70,000 km (before it reaches that boundary, typically 12,000–15,000 km upstream, a bow shock forms). The width of the magnetospheric obstacle, abreast of Earth, is typically 190,000 km, and on the night side a long "magnetotail" of stretched field lines extends to great distances.
When the solar wind is perturbed, it easily transfers energy and material into the magnetosphere. The electrons and ions in the magnetosphere that are thus energized move along the magnetic field lines to the polar regions of the atmosphere.
The aurora is a common occurrence in the Poles. It is occasionally seen in temperate latitudes, when a strong magnetic storm temporarily expands the auroral oval. Large magnetic storms are most common during the peak of the eleven-year sunspot cycle or during the three years after that peak. However, within the auroral zone the likelihood of an aurora occurring depends mostly on the slant of IMF lines (known as Bz, pronounced "bee-sub-zed" or "bee-sub-zee"), being greater with southward slants.
Geomagnetic storms that ignite auroras actually happen more often during the months around the equinoxes. It is not well understood why geomagnetic storms are tied to Earth's seasons while polar activity is not. But it is known that during spring and autumn, the interplanetary magnetic field and that of Earth link up. At the magnetopause, Earth's magnetic field points north. When Bz becomes large and negative (i.e., the IMF tilts south), it can partially cancel Earth's magnetic field at the point of contact. South-pointing Bz's open a door through which energy from the solar wind can reach Earth's inner magnetosphere.
The peaking of Bz during this time is a result of geometry. The interplanetary magnetic field (IMF) comes from the Sun and is carried outward with the solar wind. Because the Sun rotates the IMF has a spiral shape. Earth's magnetic dipole axis is most closely aligned with the Parker spiral in April and October. As a result, southward (and northward) excursions of Bz are greatest then.
However, Bz is not the only influence on geomagnetic activity. The Sun's rotation axis is tilted 8 degrees with respect to the plane of Earth's orbit. Because the solar wind blows more rapidly from the Sun's poles than from its equator, the average speed of particles buffeting Earth's magnetosphere waxes and wanes every six months. The solar wind speed is greatest — by about 50 km/s, on average — around 5th September and 5th March when Earth lies at its highest heliographic latitude.
Still, neither Bz nor the solar wind can fully explain the seasonal behavior of geomagnetic storms. Those factors together contribute only about one-third of the observed semiannual variation.
The conversation was carried on for around two hours using no battery power at all and working solely with the current induced by the aurora, and it was said that this was the first time on record that more than a word or two was transmitted in such manner.
The ultimate energy source of the aurora is the solar wind flowing past the Earth.
The magnetosphere and solar wind consist of plasma (ionized gas), which conducts electricity. It is well known (since Michael Faraday's [1791 - 1867] work around 1830) that when an electrical conductor is placed within a magnetic field while relative motion occurs in a direction that the conductor cuts across (or is cut by), rather than along, the lines of the magnetic field, an electrical current is said to be induced into that conductor and electrons will flow within it. The amount of current flow is dependent upon a) the rate of relative motion and b) the strength of the magnetic field, c) the number of conductors ganged together and d) the distance between the conductor and the magnetic field, while the direction of flow is dependent upon the direction of relative motion. Dynamos make use of this basic process ("the dynamo effect"), any and all conductors, solid or otherwise are so affected including plasmas or other fluids.
In particular the solar wind and the magnetosphere are two electrically conducting fluids with such relative motion and should be able (in principle) to generate electric currents by "dynamo action", in the process also extracting energy from the flow of the solar wind. The process is hampered by the fact that plasmas conduct easily along magnetic field lines, but not so easily perpendicular to them. So it is important that a temporary magnetic connection be established between the field lines of the solar wind and those of the magnetosphere, by a process known as magnetic reconnection. It happens most easily with a southward slant of interplanetary field lines, because then field lines north of Earth approximately match the direction of field lines near the north magnetic pole (namely, into Earth), and similarly near the southern pole. Indeed, active auroras (and related "substorms") are much more likely at such times.
Electric currents originating in such way apparently give auroral electrons their energy. The magnetospheric plasma has an abundance of electrons: some are magnetically trapped, some reside in the magnetotail, and some exist in the upward extension of the ionosphere, which may extend (with diminishing density) some 25,000 km around Earth.
Bright auroras are generally associated with Birkeland currents (Schield et al., 1969; Zmuda and Armstrong, 1973) which flow down into the ionosphere on one side of the pole and out on the other. In between, some of the current connects directly through the ionospheric E layer (125 km); the rest ("region 2") detours, leaving again through field lines closer to the equator and closing through the "partial ring current" carried by magnetically trapped plasma. The ionosphere is an ohmic conductor, so such currents require a driving voltage, which some dynamo mechanism can supply. Electric field probes in orbit above the polar cap suggest voltages of the order of 40,000 volts, rising up to more than 200,000 volts during intense magnetic storms.
Ionospheric resistance has a complex nature, and leads to a secondary Hall current flow. By a strange twist of physics, the magnetic disturbance on the ground due to the main current almost cancels out, so most of the observed effect of auroras is due to a secondary current, the auroral electrojet. An auroral electrojet index (measured in nanotesla) is regularly derived from ground data and serves as a general measure of auroral activity.
However, ohmic resistance is not the only obstacle to current flow in this circuit. The convergence of magnetic field lines near Earth creates a "mirror effect" which turns back most of the down-flowing electrons (where currents flow upwards), inhibiting current-carrying capacity. To overcome this, part of the available voltage appears along the field line ("parallel to the field"), helping electrons overcome that obstacle by widening the bundle of trajectories reaching Earth; a similar "parallel voltage" is used in "tandem mirror" plasma containment devices. A feature of such voltage is that it is concentrated near Earth (potential proportional to field intensity; Persson, 1963), and indeed, as deduced by Evans (1974) and confirmed by satellites, most auroral acceleration occurs below 10,000 km. Another indicator of parallel electric fields along field lines are beams of upwards flowing O+ ions observed on auroral field lines.
While this mechanism is probably the main source of the familiar auroral arcs, formations conspicuous from the ground, more energy might go to other, less prominent types of aurora, e.g. the diffuse aurora (below) and the low-energy electrons precipitated in magnetic storms (also below).
Some O+ ions ("conics") also seem accelerated in different ways by plasma processes associated with the aurora. These ions are accelerated by plasma waves, in directions mainly perpendicular to the field lines. They therefore start at their own "mirror points" and can travel only upwards. As they do so, the "mirror effect" transforms their directions of motion, from perpendicular to the line to lying on a cone around it, which gradually narrows down.
In addition, the aurora and associated currents produce a strong radio emission around 150 kHz known as auroral kilometric radiation (AKR, discovered in 1972). Ionospheric absorption makes AKR observable from space only.
These "parallel voltages" accelerate electrons to auroral energies and seem to be a major source of aurora. Other mechanisms have also been proposed, in particular, Alfvén waves, wave modes involving the magnetic field first noted by Hannes Alfvén (1942), which have been observed in the lab and in space. The question is however whether this might just be a different way of looking at the above process, because this approach does not point out a different energy source, and many plasma bulk phenomena can also be described in terms of Alfvén waves.
Other processes are also involved in the aurora, and much remains to be learned. Auroral electrons created by large geomagnetic storms often seem to have energies below 1 keV, and are stopped higher up, near 200 km. Such low energies excite mainly the red line of oxygen, so that often such auroras are red. On the other hand, positive ions also reach the ionosphere at such time, with energies of 20-30 keV, suggesting they might be an "overflow" along magnetic field lines of the copious "ring current" ions accelerated at such times, by processes different from the ones described above.
Again, our understanding is very incomplete. A rough guess may point out three main sources:
Any magnetic trapping is leaky--there always exists a bundle of directions ("loss cone") around the guiding magnetic field lines where particles are not trapped but escape. In the radiation belts of Earth, once particles on such trajectories are gone, new ones only replace them very slowly, leaving such directions nearly "empty". In the magnetotail, however, particle trajectories seem to be constantly reshuffled, probably when the particles cross the very weak field near the equator. As a result, the flow of electrons in all directions is nearly the same ("isotropic"), and that assures a steady supply of leaking electrons.
The energization of such electrons comes from magnetotail processes. The leakage of negative electrons does not leave the tail positively charged, because each leaked electron lost to the atmosphere is quickly replaced by a low energy electron drawn upwards from the ionosphere. Such replacement of "hot" electrons by "cold" ones is in complete accord with the 2nd law of thermodynamics.
Other types of aurora have been observed from space, e.g. "poleward arcs" stretching sunward across the polar cap, the related "theta aurora", and "dayside arcs" near noon. These are relatively infrequent and poorly understood. There are other interesting effects such as flickering aurora, "black aurora" and subvisual red arcs. In addition to all these, a weak glow (often deep red) has been observed around the two polar cusps, the "funnels" of field lines separating the ones that close on the day side of Earth from lines swept into the tail. The cusps allow a small amount of solar wind to reach the top of the atmosphere, producing an auroral glow.
Both Jupiter and Saturn have magnetic fields much stronger than Earth's (Jupiter's equatorial field strength is 4.3 gauss, compared to 0.3 gauss for Earth), and both have large radiation belts. Aurora has been observed on both, most clearly with the Hubble Space Telescope. Uranus and Neptune have also been observed to have aurorae.
The auroras on the gas giants seem, like Earth's, to be powered by the solar wind. In addition, however, Jupiter's moons, especially Io, are powerful sources of auroras on Jupiter. These arise from electric currents along field lines ("field aligned currents"), generated by a dynamo mechanism due to the relative motion between the rotating planet and the moving moon. Io, which has active volcanism and an ionosphere, is a particularly strong source, and its currents also generate radio emissions, studied since 1955. Aurorae have also been observed on Io, Europa, and Ganymede themselves, e.g., using the Hubble Space Telescope. These are generated when Jupiter's magnetospheric plasma impact their very thin atmospheres.
Auroras have also been observed on Venus and Mars. Because Venus has no intrinsic (planetary) magnetic field, Venusian aurorae appear as bright and diffuse patches of varying shape and intensity, sometimes distributed across the full planetary disc. Venusian aurorae are produced by the impact of electrons originating from the solar wind and precipitating in the night-side atmosphere. An aurora was also detected on Mars, on August 14 2004, by the SPICAM instrument aboard Mars Express. The aurora was located at Terra Cimmeria, in the region of 177° East, 52° South. The total size of the emission region was about 30 km across, and possibly about 8 km high. By analyzing a map of crustal magnetic anomalies compiled with data from Mars Global Surveyor, scientists observed that the region of the emissions corresponded to an area where the strongest magnetic field is localized. This correlation indicates that the origin of the light emission actually was a flux of electrons moving along the crust magnetic lines and exciting the upper atmosphere of Mars.
Images of aurora are significantly more common today due to the rise of use of digital cameras that have high enough sensitivities. Film and digital exposure to auroral displays is fraught with difficulties, particularly if faithfulness of reproduction is an objective. Due to the different spectral energy present, and changing dynamically throughout the exposure, the results are somewhat unpredictable. Different layers of the film emulsion respond differently to lower light levels, and choice of film can be very important. Longer exposures aggregate the rapidly changing energy and often blanket the dynamic attribute of a display. Higher sensitivity creates issues with graininess.
David Malin pioneered multiple exposure using multiple filters for astronomical photography, recombining the images in the laboratory to recreate the visual display more accurately. For scientific research, proxies are often used, such as ultra-violet, and re-coloured to simulate the appearance to humans. Predictive techniques are also used, to indicate the extent of the display, a highly useful tool for aurora hunters. Terrestrial features often find their way into aurora images, making them more accessible and more likely to be published by the major websites. It is possible to take excellent images with standard film (using ISO ratings between 100 and 400) and a single-lens reflex camera with full aperture, a fast lens (f1.4 50mm, for example), and exposures between 10 and 30 seconds, depending on the aurora's display strength.
While a striking notion, there is not a vast body of evidence in the Old Norse literature supporting this assertion. Although auroral activity is common over Scandinavia and Iceland today, it is possible that the Magnetic North Pole was considerably further away from this region during the centuries before the documentation of Norse mythology, thus explaining the lack of references.
The first Old Norse account of norðurljós is found in the Norwegian chronicle Konungs Skuggsjá from AD 1230. The chronicler has heard about this phenomenon from compatriots returning from Greenland, and he gives three possible explanations: that the ocean was surrounded by vast fires, that the sun flares could reach around the world to its night side, or that glaciers could store energy so that they eventually became fluorescent.
Another Scandinavian source refers to "the fires that surround the North and South edges of the world". This has been suggested as evidence that the Norse ventured as far as Antarctica, although this is insufficient to form a conclusion.
The Finnish name for northern lights is revontulet, fox fires. According to legend, foxes made of fire lived in Lapland, and revontulet were the sparks they whisked up into the atmosphere with their tails.
In Estonian they are called virmalised, spirit beings of higher realms. In some legends they are given negative characters, in some positive ones.
The Sami people believed that one should be particularly careful and quiet when observed by the northern lights (called guovssahasat in Northern Sami). Mocking the northern lights or singing about them was believed to be particularly dangerous and could cause the lights to descend on the mocker and kill him/her.
The Algonquin believed the lights to be their ancestors dancing around a ceremonial fire.
In Scotland, the northern lights were known as "the mirrie dancers" or na fir-chlis. There are many old sayings about them, including the Scottish Gaelic proverb "When the mirrie dancers play, they are like to slay." The playfulness of the mirrie dancers was supposed to end occasionally in quite a serious fight, and next morning when children saw patches of red lichen on the stones, they say among themselves that "the mirrie dancers bled each other last night". The appearance of these lights in the sky was considered a sign of the approach of unsettled weather.
The most popular poem of the writer Robert W. Service, from the gold rush era, The Cremation of Sam McGee, begins: "The Northern Lights have seen queer sights, But the queerest they ever did see, Was the night on the marge of Lake Lebarge, I cremated Sam McGee." In The Ballad of the Northern Lights, Service refers to the theory that the source of the glow is an enormous deposit of radium in the polar region.
The aurora features prominently in Philip Pullman's Northern Lights, and less prominently in the film adaptation, The Golden Compass. Characters in the story can sometimes see glimpses of another universe through the lights.
The Northern Lights are featured in the Disney movie Brother Bear as the source of changes in the world. They are said to be the spirits of every living creature's ancestors.
The aurora sets the events of the 2000 film Frequency in motion.