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The Northern Lights Aurora Borealis

Christine Schappert Matnr.960099

Umwelt-Campus Birkenfeld

1.Historical Background and Origin of the Northern Lights

The Northern Lights are a phenomenon that fascinates people all over the world.
During all eras, people describe their experience of seeing the Northern Lights in different ways,
mostly not out of a scientific point, but of a view dependent on their religious faith.
Whenever they are mentioned during earlier times, people associated important events with their
Some people believed that they show up after a battle was finished and others thought that their
gods were talking to them or that they represent their deceased relatives or friends.
However, most of those magical lights in the sky were associated with positive occasions.

The earliest reference to the possibility of appearing Northern Lights goes back to the 3rd century
before Christ.
Referring to texts of this time the author Di Wang Shi Ji (215282 AC) wrote the chronology of
the five emperors where he mentioned glowing light shining over the fields.
The next known text that would mention the Northern Lights comes from an exert of the bible.
In Ezekiel 1:128, the text written states [...] I looked, and I saw a windstorm coming out of the
northan immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light. The center of
the fire looked like glowing metal [...]1

In Greek mythology the phenomenon of the Northern Lights is also described .

Aristotle (384322 BC) was the first philosopher that saw them in person and wrote down notes
of his observations. He had a theory that the heat from the sun sets steam from the earth free,
which would collapse with fire somewhere in the hemisphere so you could see the lightning in
the sky.

The Romans also discussed the appearance of the Northern lights in their texts between the years
464459 BC.
Seneca, a Roman philosopher describes his observations of the Northern Lights in great detail in
his book Naturales Quaestiones.

Based on the number of descriptions written about seeing those shining mystical lights in the
sky, changing their colors and form very rapidly, we can say that there were times where the
Northern Lights seemed to be very intense, while other times they did not emerge at all or only
just slightly.

This inconstancy made people trying to explain them differently, such as signs of their gods or
even as indications for their destiny.

During the Middle Ages, notes from people studying about any phenomenons that could be the

1 Holy Bible, Ezekiel 1 New international Version [online]. Available

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ezekiel%201 [2015, february]
Northern Lights are vaguely described and are mostly not illustrated, which makes it hard to say
if they were talking about the appearance of the Northern Lights or something else.

The Vikings have also seen the Northern lights, but contrary to popular belief they did not
mention them in many of their texts. The first time that the word norrljs, which means
Northern Light, in reference to Vikings can be found is in the book The King's Mirror, written in
1250 AD, which describes the observations of the Northern Lights as they were seen by settlers
in Greenland.
The end of the Viking Age was 1100 AD.

In 1873, German Hermann Fritz wrote a summary including all the historical texts and notes he
could find mentioning the appearance of Northern lights in Europe and including some Chinese
sources as well.
He found 18 pieces of written evidence between the years of 503 BC to the time of Christ's birth.
From the time of Christs birth to approximately 500 AD, he found 11 pieces of written evidence,
95 pieces from 500 AD to 1000 AD, and 115 pieces from 1000 AD to 1500 AD.

After many years of interest in the subject, the science behind the Northern Lights increased
steadily so that people could finally try to find a way to explain exactly how the appearance of
those magical lights kept showing up in the sky and in all those different vibrant colors.

Based on William Gilbert's (1592-1603) discovery that the planet earth is a huge magnet by
itself, subsequent scientists could find the scientific explanation step by step.

Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655) heralded the beginning of the scientific research of the Northern
Lights. He also named them aurora borealis, the latin term for the phenomenon which is now
used all over the world.

Edmond Halley (1656-1742) finally designed a new scheme of the magnetic field of the earth
where you could see the lines of force caused by the magnetic field.

In 1774, Jean Jacques D. de Mairan found out that there is a relation between the activity of the
sun and the Northern Lights, but he could still not find out the scientific origin.

People started to believe that the Northern Lights are reflections coming from small ice crystals
until Anders Jonas Angstrom (1814-1874) started his research about the Northern Lights by
using a prism. By using a prism, he had discovered that depending on the colors in which the
light was split, the theory about the light reflecting crystals could not be true. He could also
prove that the light comes from self-luminous gases, which was a big step towards the correct
physical explanation of the Northern Lights.

Elias Loomis (1811-1889) and physician Hermann Fritz (1830-1883) discovered the relation
between the activity of the sun and the Northern Lights and Kristian Birkland (1867-1917)
finally showed in 1896 that electrons, slung away by the sun, become directed to the magnetic
poles where they collide with molecules of the Earth's atmosphere.

Another 62 years later Ludwig Biermann and E.N. Parker established the theory on the existence
of a sun storm consisting of charged molecules.

With modern technologies it was finally possible to explain the scientific origin of the Northern
Lights in detail. During the International Geophysical Year from 1957 to 1959, cameras recorded
the activity of the northern lights in different places and in the year 1970 with the Canadian
satellite ISIS-II, the first pictures of the Northern Lights were taken from orbit.
With those pictures, scientists at the University of California constructed the theory of particle
storms in the magnetosphere. This theory is valid to this day.

To sum up all the discoveries Ill explain in the following part of the text how exactly the
Northern Lights emerge.
Charged molecules are thrown out by the sun, and blown by the solar wind towards our planet
Earth which is called a sun storm. Because of the magnetic field of the Earth, the particles get
directed to the magnetic poles.
In the vicinity of the magnetic poles, the particles can pass holes in the earths magnetic field. As
soon as they enter the Earth's atmosphere they start to collide in various altitudes with different
gaseous particles that the atmosphere contains.
The more intense the sun storm, the lower the altitude where the particles collide in our view
from the earth.
Now, depending on the gas the particles collide with, the explosion that is caused by the
collision causes the different colors of the light.
The atmosphere of the Earth mainly contains Nitrogen and Oxygen.

Atomic oxygen is contained in the atmosphere in a height of 80 to 150 kilometer and responsible
for the two main colors green and red.
The green light has a wavelength of 557 nm and the red light has a wavelength of 630 nm.

Nitrogen is usually contained in a height of 150 up to 600 kilometer above the earth.
The ionized Nitrogen causes the blue light with wavelengths from 480 nm to 420 nm and the
purple light from 390 nm to 420 nm.
The third is the collision with excited Nitrogen, which emerges with really intense and dark hues
of red light with a wavelength from 630 nm to 790 nm.

Though pretty as they are, the fields where the collisions take place can lead to problems with
technology used for communication, satellites or radios for example, and they can also warp
measured data and also satellite signals.

2. The Northern Lights today

The following locations are where this natural spectacle can actually take place in.

All of the places listed are known as wild northern locations, the population in those locations is
not that high compared to the population in locations that are further to the south.
The environment is untouched in many parts or is at least protected by signed national parks.

While the area around the south pole is largely inaccessible to human life, the north pole region
can be easily accessed from Europe. The best chance you have to catch a view of the Northern
Lights is to visit the latitudes in the Arctic Circle from 68 to 74 degrees.

It is easy to see the Northern Lights during winter time because of the early sunset during this
time and the crystal clear sky, while in the summertime, they are taking place but you dont
actually notice them because the sky is just too bright.

During solar maximums, the Northern Lights are more active than usual. Two years ago in the
year of 2013, we had the last solar maximum. In a cycle of 11 years the sun spot activity
increases and slowly decreases after every maximum.
Additionally to this cycle the Northern Lights are more active during a sun storm.
To sum that up, the more restless the sun, the better or the more visible or active the Northern
Lights are.

During times of higher sun activity, it is possible to see the Northern Lights far from the arctic
circle. On these days, a high disturbance of communication systems around the arctic circles is
to be expected.

Despite this knowledge, the exact reason for their appearance at certain places and times is still
unexplained. Also the color or the form in which they emerge is random.
Meaning, there are no set times or days where you can be sure to see the Northern Lights at their
The rule is, the darker and more clear the sky, the higher the chance to see them.
During wintertime, approximately between 10 PM and 1 AM, the highest activity for the
European countries is established.
Some countries provide websites with aurora alerts where they inform you about when they are
currently expecting activity and the location of the Northern Lights.

Depending on the location of where the Northern Lights were observed over all those years, and
the fact that at this time we know that the magnetic poles are not steady but move, we can
explain why the Northern Lights were seen in places which seem unusual with regard to the
places we know that they are actually visible.

Those countries where the Northern Lights appear usually use this fact for advertising purposes.
Even though we know today that there is no magic behind it, they still seem magical the way
they show up at the sky, the unpredictability makes it exciting.
For the most countries where they show up, the Northern Lights also have a religious or cultural

Every tribe has his own myths and legends about the Northern Lights.
A few tribes in Canada for example believe, that the Northern Lights are human spirits, whereas
some Eskimos in Greenland believe that the Northern Lights are the spirits of children who died
at birth and now they are dancing over the sky.
In Norway they believed the lights were the spirits of old maids dancing in the sky and waving.
The majority of myths have to do with souls or spirits of people or creatures that died.
Completely different from the myth that the Greeks believed in. They thought the Northern
Lights are portents of war and sickness.
3. The Northern Lights in Finland

First fact you have to know is, that Finland is basically split in two parts. There are the normal
Finnish people that live in the southern part of Finland, which is actually close to every other
European country depending infrastructure and population. But the more you go to the north of
Finland, the more you will see that traditions as well as the whole lifestyle change.
In the northern part of Finland, there is the Finnish part of Lapland also called Lappi.
The land of the Sami. Those are the native tribes of Finland and they see themselves as a part of
either any Sami tribe and not necessarily as Finnish at all.
They might speak Finnish, but they also have their own language, their own traditions, and their
own myths and legends.
Lapland is also the part of Finland where the arctic circle goes through. Due to this fact, the area
where the fascinating Northern Lights are visible is the best and the most intense.
Based on the facts that Lapland is sparsely populated, the natural habitat of the reindeer, they
have a really cold winter with tons of snow and additionally to that the Northern Lights which
are even more impressive when the snow crystals are reflecting the light it is no wonder, that this
is the home of Santa Claus.
A place full of magic near the city Rovaniemi, which is the biggest city in Lapland. Santa lives
right on the arctic circle.
But this is one of the modern stories about Lapland.
The Northern Lights have, depending on the area where you go to, have a major importance to
the different Sami tribes where everyone usually has their own legend about it.
Generally, the Finnish name for the Northern Lights is "revontulet" which is associated to the
arctic fox. One version of the legend is that an arctic fox is running far in the north and touches
the mountains with its fur which makes sparks fly off into the sky as the northern lights. The
other version of the story says the fox is sweeping snow up to the sky with its tail, which causes
the Northern Lights.
Guovssahasah is the name the Sami gave the Northern Lights. You can translate it as The sun
glowing in the sky but the right historical translation is the fire lit by a bird.
This relates to the legends and myths that most of the northern countries have about the Northern
The myth about the spirits of dead creatures showing up at the sky during the night, dancing
Therefore whenever the Northern Lights showed up the Sami required a respectful and
ceremonial behavior. They would build a fire and play drums to harness the fire. Furthermore,
they believed that the fire, while the Northern Lights take place, benefits to compromise a

Today the tribes of the Sami still exist. They might not live in tents anymore but in houses as we
know, but they still follow their traditions.
As of 100 years ago, they still practice the original reindeer breeding, with leaving them in their
natural environment and going out to bring them home once a year to sort out the ones to

They do believe in the myths and legends of the Northern Lights and they care about keeping
their traditions and their language alive and share their knowledge with visitors.

So it is not just the Northern Lights themselves that are impressive but also the traditions,
legends and myths that make them even more magical.