Why Do Auroras Happen?

When thinking of a phenomena that you see on earth you may think of a rainbow, or perhaps something weather-related like a tornado or lightning, but I believe that there is nothing that embodies the word better than the northern lights. The northern lights, also known as Aurora Borealis, is a remarkable event that leaves trails of multicolored light in the sky and takes place in the top of the northern hemisphere. What exactly causes it, though? 

The sun emits something called a coronal mass ejection, which is associated with solar storms. This coronal mass ejection shoots out infrequently or frequently depending on the 11-year solar cycle. Made of plasma, these ejections are usually the culprit behind the beauty of our northern lights. The Earth has a magnetic field which protects us from damage from geomagnetic storms, but a small percentage of the storm seeps through into Earth’s atmosphere. After the coronal mass ejection collides with the Earth’s magnetosphere, it becomes a geomagnetic storm. Because of the shape of the Earth’s magnetosphere, the storm has to fight against it until it can reach the openings in the north and south poles. After this energy enters our atmosphere it interacts with the gasses in our atmosphere. As a result it creates the northern and southern lights from our view. The colors of these auroras vary depending on the gas element, but no matter what color, they will remain a jaw dropping marvel and one of Earth’s many wonders.  

The northern lights’ counterpart, the southern lights (or Aurora Australis), is the same event, but occurs in the southern hemisphere. Although it is the same thing, it unfortunately doesn’t illuminate the eyes of many because it shines over less accessible areas. Fortunately for us, however, Washington was briefly in the scope of the northern lights on May 10–11.

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