The Northern Lights

Brandy Bones

At two in the morning on Sunday night, I heard my roommate outside screaming at the sky, so I came out in my pajamas to see what the fuss was about. Despite the street lights, we could see it – beams of light thrown across the sky in all directions. Minutes later, eight girls and two cars had made their way up to the top of the Lebanon Hill from where we could see the beautiful spectacle properly. From the top of the hill, all of Hamilton and the Colgate campus could be viewed. To the left of the chapel steeple was an unusually large crescent moon hovering low on the horizon, matching the tint of the cherished golden nipple. All around us, the Earth was alive with the vibrant colors of the Northern Lights. The beams seemed to shoot up from underneath the ground, from the north, south, east and west, almost meeting each other as we looked up in awe. The most impressive view was to the north, where the aurora borealis, as it is properly known, seemed to be vibrating to an intense rhythm while refracting spectacular colors up its length. It was a clear night with a few clouds poetically interrupting the beams of light. As if this was not enough to complete our weekend and happily begin our Monday, one friend saw a shooting star streak across the sky. We took it in for 20 minutes or so, satisfied that we had caught the best of the Earth’s laser show. By the time we left, the Northern Lights were still visible, but the sky had calmed down a bit; the tempo of the beams had lessened and the colors had relaxed. “The aurora seen on Sunday night lasted throughout the night until dawn on Monday,” explained Professor of Physics and Astronomy Thomas J. Balonek. “This was the most spectacular aurora seen from Colgate since the early 90’s.” (Some previous intense Northern Lights displays in the last several years were clouded out in Hamilton.) “At its peak, the lights covered about two-thirds of the sky, stretching down to the middle of the southern sky. The entire northern sky was full of rapidly changing types of auroral activity.” The aurora borealis phenomenon is caused when material thrown off the surface of the sun collides with the atmosphere of the Earth. Highly charged electrons from the solar winds leave the sun at speeds of one million miles per hour, and reaching the earth and following the magnetic force of the Earth’s core. When these electrons enter the upper atmosphere, they collide with different atoms and give off this energy as light: oxygen gives off green and red light, while nitrogen gives off blue and purple. The light is created in much the same way that a neon sign functions, with electrons passing through gases in tubes. The reverberations of the Northern Lights are caused by the constantly changing combination of magnetic and electrical forces. An aurora borealis is visible at high latitudes close to the north pole and usually correlates with an 11-year cycle of solar activity. The Northern Lights on Sunday were unusual because the Sun’s activity is low. But last Sunday, strong solar flares generated aurora so intense that they were visible not only in Central New York but as far south and west as the Carolinas, Tennessee, Arizona and northern California. Scientists and space weather gurus are able to predict when the Northern Lights will appear by tracking the level of geomagnetic activity. The Space Environment Center records this data using an index called Kp, which measures the geomagnetic activity every three hours, as well as the NOAA POES Auroral Activity Level.The word “aurora” comes from the Greek goddess of the dawn; “boreal” comes from the Latin word meaning north. Put them together and you’ve got the Northern Lights. The Northern Lights have inspired stories and legends throughout the ages. Eskimos believed that the aurora could be attracted by whistling, while clapping would make it recede. Believing it was an evil force, some Eskimos armed themselves with weapons when an aurora appeared. The European and Chinese dragon legends were most likely based on aurora, while the Norwegians believed the aurora brought bad weather. Australian aborigines believed it was the gods dancing in the sky. Norse mythology believed it was a bridge across the sky used by the gods to travel from Heaven to Earth. Equipped with a scientific explanation, these beliefs have receded into the annals of folklore. Who knew the interplay of Earth’s magnetic core and the electrically charged solar winds of the sun could be so beautiful? Not I, and this week I was thankful to be at Colgate: so remote from the lights of a city and the moderate climate of a southern altitude.