Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights)

The dancing ribbons of light called aurora borealis or northern lights have mesmerized people for millennia. Galileo named these dancing lights “aurora borealis” in 1619, after the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek god of the north wind, Boreas.  The earliest depiction of the auroras may be a cave painting in France dating to 30,000 years ago.  The oldest written record was made by the Chinese in 2600BC.  People around the world had stories to explain the dancing lights they saw in the sky.  In Finland it was believed that the aurora was created by the mythical fire fox racing across the snow so fast that sparks fly up setting the sky on fire.  In Viking myth, the aurora is light reflected off the battle armor of the Valkyries.  Native American Cree peoples believed the aurora to be the spirits of their departed loved ones trying to communicate with them and the Algonquin believed the aurora was a fire built by their creator as a reminder that he was watching over them.

Auroras occur 365 days a year, 24 hours a day in the aurora zone – the area around the North (and South) Poles where auroras are almost always seen.  The Sun is constantly ejecting charged particles from its corona, or outermost atmosphere, creating the solar wind which slams into the Earth’s upper atmosphere.  These particles are carried by Earth’s magnetic field to the poles where their energy causes the atmosphere to fluoresce, and we see aurora. The brightness and frequency of aurora are tied to the solar cycle.  Every 11 years the Sun’s magnetic field flips –its north and south poles switch places. Eleven years later the poles flip back.   The beginning of this solar cycle is a solar minimum during which the surface of the sun is least active.  Over time solar activity increases.  The middle of the solar cycle is called solar maximum.  This is when the Sun is most active, sunspot activity increases, and the number of solar flares and coronal mass ejections increase.  The Sun is approaching solar maximum, predicted to peak between early 2024 and late 2025.  There will be brighter and more frequent auroras.  How far south auroras will be seen depends on how energetic the Sun’s particles are.

If you want to see the aurora here in northern Ohio or have thought about planning an aurora hunting trip farther north, the next 4 or 5 years will be the most favorable for auroral sightings.

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