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The dance of the spirits

Shafts or curtains of colored lights filled the night sky, dazzling the onlookers. This astronomical phenomena is the result of collisions between gaseous particles in the Earth’s atmosphere and charged particles released from the sun’s atmosphere. The colour variations are due to the type of gas particles that are colliding and the most common auroral colour a pale yellowish-green, produced by oxygen molecules located about 60 miles above the earth. Much rarer are the all-red auroras, produced by high-altitude oxygen, at heights of up to 200 miles. Nitrogen produces blue or purplish-red aurora.

The northern lights are called aurora polaris and the southern lights are called aurora australis. This auroral activity is cyclic, peaking roughly every 11 years, with the next peak period in 2024.

Some displays are particularly spectacular and widespread, due to auroral storms. During August and September 1859, and  Feb 1958 lights 1250 miles wide circled the Arctic from Oregon to New Hampshire. In March 1989 the whole sky turned a vivid red and the aurora was seen in Europe and North America as far south as Cuba.

Legends of the Lights

In Roman myths, Aurora was the goddess of the dawn. As a result the northern hemisphere lights are referred to as dawn of the north while the southern hemisphere lights means dawn of the south.  Many cultural groups have legends about the lights. In medieval times, the occurrences of auroral displays were seen as harbingers of war or famine. The Maori of New Zealand shared the belief, with people of the far north, that the lights were reflections from torches or campfires.

 

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