Oct 11, 2011

Seven Wonders of the Natural World - Part Five

Aurora Borealis

The aurora borealis, also known as the Northern Lights, are naturally occurring lights that create spectacular displays in the night sky. Often it is nothing more than a diffused glow on the horizon, but it is truly amazing when it appears as waves across the sky. Though most frequently seen in the northern hemisphere, they have been known to appear in the south as well. The best chance to see the northern lights is between the months of March to April and September to October.

I have been lucky enough to have seen the aurora borealis twice in my life. Once when I was a teenager taking a night time walk on the beach I saw streaks of green in the sky over Lake Ontario. The second time I saw them from my backyard. It was such an impressive sight I even woke my daughter up to watch them with me.

But what exactly are the northern lights?
They’re much more than just a pretty light display in the sky. They’re actually caused by collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun entering the earth’s atmosphere. Variations in colour are due to the type of gas particles that are colliding; the rare, all-red aurora is caused by high-altitude oxygen. The displays may appear in many colours, although usually they’re green or pink.

More interesting (to me, anyway) are the many myths and legends surrounding the Northern Lights:
An aurora was thought to be a sign of good will from Nanahboozho by the Ottawas of Manitoulin Island (in Lake Huron).
Many native tries believed the northern lights to be dancing spirits.
In Siberia, the Chuvash believed it was their heaven god helping women in childbirth
The Inuits of Greenland, however, believed the lights to be the spirits of children who died at birth.
The Lakota Sioux believe just the opposite – that the lights were spirits waiting to be born.
The Fox Indians also believed the lights were spirits, however in this case it was the spirits of their slain enemies who wished revenge.
Many Eskimo groups believe the northern lights to be spirits playing ball with a walrus head or skull.
The Vikings believed the lights to be reflections from the shields of the Valkyrie as they left the battlefields, leading the honoured dead to Valhalla.
In China it was believed that the lights were made of the fiery breath of a dragon.
The Makah Indians believed the lights were the fires of a tribe of dwarfs in the far north.
In Scotland the lights are called “merry dancers”. It’s believed if the dancers moved slowly and gracefully you’d be in for good weather.

The best places to watch for the northern lights are areas that are not subject to 'light pollution'. Smaller communities in the north tend to be best. The display peaks almost every eleven years; the next peak should occur in 2013.

If you want to see more of this natural wonder, try the Aurora Webcam.

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