It's mystifying. It's mesmerizing. It's the aurora borealis, or, more simply, the northern lights. This brilliant display lights up the night skies of northern Canada from Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories to the far northern reaches of Quebec. At times it even illuminates the sky over some of the northern states.
Scientists who have studied this strange phenomenon say that the lights cannot emit sounds we can hear on earth. Yet, people claim that if one sits quietly beneath a sky alive with these lights, whispering, hissing and cackling sounds can indeed be heard. During really active displays, some claim to have smelled ozone, as though there has been a lightning strike nearby.
Scientists also tell us that, although the aurora seems near enough to touch at times, it's actually forty to three hundred miles above the earth in the ionosphere. Yet these strange lights often reflect from low-lying clouds and snow covered mountaintops.
Stories abound of trappers, northern radio operators and far-northern Inuit who claim the aurora has come down like a colored fog and crackled in the air around their cabins.
This strange band of lights puts on a scintillating display that is 300 to 600 miles wide with the magnetic north pole as its center pin. It reaches from sixty to seventy-five degrees latitude along the Arctic Coast. During periods of high activity, however, the aurora has been known to extend its magic as far south as Miami, Florida.
Produced by streams of charged particles cast off by eruptions on the sun, the aurora borealis flickers and flares with a rainbow of color. The particles are driven by solar winds, and may become more active when affected by solar activity such as sunspots or solar flares. The rainbow-like colors are caused by glowing gases, including oxygen and nitrogen. Each one has a distinctive shade, depending on its altitude.
These electrically charged particles can cause problems during periods of high activity. They have been known to disrupt electrical communication, causing static and malfunctions in radios and computers. Compasses give false readings under the influence of the northern lights and power surges are possible.
Sometimes the entire sky is ablaze with a shifting, ever-changing panorama of light. At other times, the aurora arches across the horizon in a glowing ribbon of color. The lights can form a ring around the moon, or change into a colored cloud. Occasionally, a pillar of light stretches from earth to the farthest reaches of space, or there is a continuous flickering display of streamers, flames and lightning bolts of color.
Beliefs and legends have different explanations about the aurora. The Inuit believe the lights are the sky people playing ball. Many Native Canadians claim the luminosity is a vision of ancestral spirits dancing before the Great Spirit. A small group of people believes the earth is hollow. Instead of the North Pole, they claim there is a hole at the top of the earth that leads to a world within our world. The northern lights, these people say, are a reflection of the Sun from this inner world.
The aurora borealis is a phenomenon of the northern skies. Near the South Pole, a similar display takes place. This is the aurora Australis. Aurora activity has also been observed in the atmosphere surrounding the planet Jupiter.