Protected by the Planet: The Significance of the Northern Lights

The Northern Lights near the Churchill Northern Studies Center. Source: Emmanuel Milou.

The cold, dreary north. Just as it exists in fantasy stories, it also exists here in the real world. Though in Newcastle – which is where I come from – the saying is more along the lines of “winter is going” as opposed to coming, hinting at a few days towards the end of July. In general, I personally find northern climates tend to have some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, even with their harsher weather; despite my obvious aversion to the UK, I even think there are even parts of it which look amazing. However there is one reason in particular why I envy more northern regions, and that reason is a phenomenon which I would love the chance to see in my lifetime: the northern lights.

Aurora borealis

Known scientifically as ‘aurora borealis’ (as opposed to ‘aurora australis’ in the south) – or ‘the Golden Compass’ in North America – the northern lights are described to occur in different colours, shapes and patterns. As I’ve yet to see them myself, I can’t sadly comment much further on them in this regard. They are known worldwide, with it being a tourist attraction for many countries.

Where do they come from?

Despite being only able to see them with the naked eye at night, the lights are in fact a result of the Sun. Or, more specifically, they’re an effect of solar winds. So what’s the link with the lights, and why is it that they seem to occur centred around the poles? The reason lies in the Earth’s magnetic field. 

The magnetic field of the Earth is responsible for protecting us against radiation, as well as our atmosphere from destruction. Scientists often judge this in comparison to Mars, where it is suggested that it’s magnetosphere was not strong enough to protect the atmosphere, which is why it now exists as a barren wasteland, despite having evidence of an atmosphere at one point. Anyway, charged particles from the sun are mainly deflected by our magnetic field, but at the weak points – the north and south poles – a small amount of the charged particles can enter the atmosphere and here they collide with the gasses in the atmosphere. This ‘excites’ electrons in the gasses, and when they ‘relax’ colourful light is released, with the colour depending on the gas. Think of it like giving a child some sugar and the following colourful bursts of energy till they calm down again. This is the process by which the northern lights occur.

Protection

This means that the northern lights are a sign that our planet is being bombarded with high energy particles, in most cases from the Sun. It kind of shows the brutal nature of outer space, and how our planet has protected all life over an enormous period of time, allowing our own species to evolve. As conditions on our planet become more hostile, with increasing political tensions and an ever changing climate, it’s seeming as if we now need to be shielded from the inside too; though that isn’t something any kind of magnetosphere can help with. While they certainly are a beautiful sight to behold, the Northern Lights also signify something much greater: how lucky we are to have such a planet in the first place. 

Liked what you read? Spread the word and share it on social media:

Jack McGovan is a recent graduate in chemistry with a specialisation in ‘Energy and Sustainable Chemistry’ from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Following a job as a student journalist covering the energy transition, he has moved to Berlin where he is following his passion for working towards creating a fairer and more sustainable world. Seeing a gap in the way in which the world of science was communicated, he founded Delta-S. By writing source based content, he hopes to communicate his findings to a wider audience.