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Noon Edition

How To See The Northern Lights

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D:        I have a question I’ve been pondering, Yaël: how far south can you see the Northern Lights?

Y:        Oh, I love the Aurora Borealis! All those waving ribbons of green and red and purple in the sky. If those curtains of light are what you’re after, then technically you can go all the way to the South Pole. That’s the Aurora Australis, and you can sometimes see it in New Zealand or Chile.

D:        I shouldn’t be surprised that there’s a southern aurora. After all, the Earth’s magnetic field is particularly strong at the poles. When the field around the poles encounters charged particles from the sun’s solar wind, the molecules in the magnetic field react. The reactions of different elements—like oxygen or nitrogen—create different colors. And though the Aurora Borealis is so popular that we focus on these reactions at the north pole, molecules react at the south pole just as much.. So I guess my question becomes: how close to the equator can you see the aurora?

Y:        That depends on the auroral oval, which is the lopsided circle around the magnetic poles where the aurora gleams. You’re right, Host 1, when you say that the solar wind causes the polar lights. But sometimes large solar storms send huge amounts of particles hurtling toward Earth. The storms cause the auroral oval to expand considerably. In fact, in 1859, there was such a large solar storm that researchers think the aurora was seen in Colombia! Occasionally, smaller storms come around, and the northern continental US can see the Aurora Borealis.

D:        We’ll have to keep watch—maybe we’ll be lucky, and one day the Northern Lights will make their way down to us!
Aurora Borealis

The northern lights can usually only be seen in certain parts of the northern hemisphere. (Svein-Magne Tunli, Wikimedia Commons)

The Northern Lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis, are waving ribbons of green, red and purple in the sky. These curtains of light can be seen as far south as the South Pole.

In the southern hemisphere, however, they're called the Aurora Australis. They can also sometimes be seen in New Zealand or Chile.

It isn't surprising that there's a southern aurora. After all, the Earth's magnetic field is particularly strong at the poles. When the field around the poles encounters charged particles from the sun's solar wind, the molecules in the magnetic field react.

The reactions of different elements, like oxygen or nitrogen, create different colors. And although the Aurora Borealis is so popular that we focus on these reactions at the north pole, molecules react at the south pole just as much. 

Seeing the aurora in areas closer to the equator depends on the auroral oval, which is the lopsided circle around the magnetic poles where the aurora gleams. While it is true that the solar wind causes the polar lights, sometimes the large solar storms send huge amounts of particles hurtling toward Earth. The storms cause the auroral oval to expand considerably. 

In fact, in 1859, there was such a large solar storm that researchers think the aurora was seen in Columbia. Occasionally, smaller storms come around, and the northern continental U.S. can see the Aurora Borealis.

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