Northern Lights, December 2012

It’s December and the winter season is almost upon us. There are beautiful surprises associated with all seasons, but in the wintertime there are special events that you may be lucky enough to witness in the northern night sky. Northern lights as they are commonly called appear in the northern skies and look like a giant series of curtains hanging and waving in the sky. They could stretch from horizon to horizon and shift through various soft greenish, reddish, and bluish colors.

This beautiful show can be seen in the northern parts of North America, Europe and Asia.  The further north you go the greater chance they will appear, but even people in the far northern states can also occasionally witness this spectacular sight.

But what causes this strange display of lights in the sky?

Perhaps in school you learned that the Earth is like a magnet, and that it has a strong magnetic field around it. Meanwhile the sun sends out a solar wind, which differs from the winds that we feel on Earth. This wind is made up of light particles which blow toward the earth.

As the solar wind hits the Earth's magnetic field, some of it is sent into the Earth's atmosphere (a large ocean of air covering the entire Earth) and when the light particles spill into this "ocean" the particles collide with gases in the atmosphere causing the particles to glow, which produces the lights they see in shades of red, green, blue and violet.  

There are things you can do to increase the likelihood of a viewing of the northern lights in New England.  Scientists will track a phenomenon on the Sun known as solar flares; if there are large flares on the sun they can predict the occurrence of Northern Lights. There are several websites that you can go to get predictions for solar activity and the possibility of witnessing this spectacular sky show. One is at weather.com.

         

Once you know that there is a good possibility of seeing the Northern lights, bundle up warm and head out side with your parents on a late night Northern Light safari.  The first important thing to remember is that you want it, dark, dark, dark. It is not just about low light. You want late nighttime DARK. But you also want few competing light sources so get away from the city lights and let your eyes adjust to the darkness. The further away from that earth based light sources the better for seeing the Northern Lights. Full moons hurt a bit because they increase light and darkness is best for viewing. The darker the moon, the better. So pay attention to the  phase of the moon. This December the new moon is on the 13th, so that would be the darkest time of the month. And of course the skies need to be clear and free of clouds.  If you venture our on a clear night, even if you don’t see the Northern Lights you won’t be disappointed. In that clear nighttime sky look for the constellations of the Big dipper and Orion, and locate the Milky Way and the North Star. Remember all adventures out at night can been very exciting with memories that last a lifetime.