Blog  Aurora Borealis

Laura Emerson

Book:  Log Cabin Reflections, Kindle, Amazon $5


For several decades, I lived in Houston, TX, latitude 31.  When I moved to Alaska, latitude 61, almost everything was different, of course – the weather, terrain, animals, plants, insects and light.  Houston is almost as close to the equator as I am to the North Pole… and to Houston.

The world is a big place.

The closer to the equator one goes, the less difference there is between the length of day and night and the shorter the duration of sunrise and sunset.  In the far north and far south, however, because of the tilt of the planet, seasonally diurnal differences in light can be extreme.  Here, in summer, we enjoy 20 hours of daylight, and, this close to a pole, our sunsets and sunrises are long, too.  So the darkest shade of night is midnight blue, not black.

In mid-winter, we have 5.5 hours of daylight (on sunny days), lengthened by 90 minutes each of pink/orange sunrise and purple/pink sunset. Many people from the Lower 48 might fear that such long nights would be depressing.  But how can that be, when the stars and moon are so dazzling in a sky unencumbered by city lights and pollution?  And, of course, we enjoy breath taking views of the Aurora Borealis.

This evocative term was coined by Galileo back in 1619, from Boreas (North Wind) and Aurora (Dawn).  I do not know how many times he saw one in Italy, but historical records indicate that such a sighting there was interpreted as a harbinger of plague, war or something BAD.  

However, in the Arctic nations, where it is seen more often, people always interpreted it as a positive, with lovely mythical stories of gods, animals, monsters, and ancestral spirits.  For some it was the gods playing a game or a divine wedding or dance.  For others, it demarcated the route for souls to travel to the afterlife.  My favorite Scandinavian story is that the aurora is created by celestial foxes running.  Their red tails scratch the clouds and start fires.  The Chinese envisioned dragons, which is clearly understandable from seeing Auroras.  Both Japanese and some Scandinavian traditions associate the Auroras with babies – either the souls of the deceased, or a good omen for child bearing.  Far northern Alaskan and Canadian hotels still do a brisk business for Japanese newlyweds who believe that a child conceived under an Aurora will be blessed by good fortune. 

For me, the dancing, swaying, swooping, and circling Auroras look the way symphonies sound.  My first one looked like a green and white hula skirt turning and swaying gracefully in the heavens.  What is the appropriate sound track? Others look like they should be accompanied by booming drums to the east, and trumpets to the south, with the hum of violins throughout the sky, the thrum of a chorale, and the high, sweet grace notes of flute here and there.  

I am a deep sleeper, but when my husband gently awakens me to see a gorgeous display, we wrap up in parkas and walk back and forth from back porch to front, to witness these boisterous displays.  I find myself holding my breath in wonder and amazement, getting goose bumps, wanting to look in many directions at once because the displays are constantly evolving and changing.  Auroras are like a ballet danced by a full company.   The closest experience to this that I felt as a child was watching –fireworks, but without the sound.    

Scientists have discovered that auroras are caused by solar wind (also called solar flares and solar coronal mass emissions).  Magnetically charged “plasma” from the sun is ejected toward our planet from cooler coronas burbling on that star. Therefore, they can be predicted in the short term by meteorologists monitoring the sun, and also in near decadal patterns of 11 years when solar conditions are conducive to these solar winds headed in our direction.  

As you may imagine, a magnetic force this powerful can be devastating, too.  Perhaps the early Italians were not so wrong in their assessment.  The Carrington Event of September 1-2, 1859 was the strongest and fastest geomagnetic storm in recorded history.  The solar flare is believed to have reached earth in a swift 17 hours.  It caused massive electrical disruptions, which, at the time, were largely limited to telegraph stations and wires.  Fires erupted and equipment was ruined.  Telegraph operators touching equipment received shocks.  The auroras were seen closer to the equator than ever before or since. 

In my view, Nature is neither kind nor cruel, it just IS.  It DOES what it DOES.  It is understandably the wont of creative human minds to interpret and editorialize and categorize.  But in cases like the auroras, my efforts to describe and explain are so inadequate.  Sometimes, we can just respect the power and delight in the beauty.  Just BE.     

If you have never witnessed a night sky dancing in colors of white, green, purple, and red, I encourage you to add this to your nature travel itinerary.   The year 2025 is supposed to be a doozy.