Northern Lights to brighten night sky

Stargazers

Stand just once beneath the shimmering curtains of the northern lights — the aurora borealis — and you will never forget the experience. They are, without question, the most hauntingly beautiful and unearthly of all natural phenomena.

A typical auroral display begins as a diffuse arc during late evenings. As the arc brightens and drifts slowly across the sky, new ones may form in its place. Within these may appear intricate ripples and curls that dance along the arc, giving the impression of curtains blowing gently in the breeze. Their colors can range from a faint grayish-green to brilliant yellow-green, crimson, purple and sometimes even blue.

Such displays have mystified and inspired sky watchers for ages. Some tribes of American Indians believed the aurora to be the light of lanterns carried by spirits seeking the souls of dead hunters. In Europe during the Middle Ages, the lights were believed to be the breath of brave soldiers who gave their lives as they battled forever in the skies for their king and country. And the Aborigines of Australia believed the aurora australis (the southern lights) to be the dance of gods across their southern sky.

Witness them just once and you’ll completely understand.

Today, of course, we strive for a more scientific appreciation. Over the past century of aurora research, we’ve learned that these mystical lights owe their origin to the sun. Our star continuously belches into space electrically charged particles, and sometimes in violent eruptions known as coronal mass ejections. Some of these particles are captured by our planet’s magnetic field and slam into the polar regions of our upper atmosphere, causing atoms of oxygen and nitrogen to glow a variety of undulating colors.

People in arctic regions are treated to these magical lights almost nightly, but those in lower latitudes aren’t excluded completely — especially now, while the sun is near the bottom of its 11-year activity cycle (“solar minimum”). At these times, auroral storms can be even more powerful and dramatic, since coronal holes — vast openings in the sun’s atmosphere — allow material to race outward and shower our planet with electrically charged particles.

Sky watchers under dark and moonless rural skies may, on rare occasions, see displays from even middle- and low-latitude locations. In fact, during the most recent solar minimum a decade ago, the lights appeared as far south as Florida, Texas, Arizona and Southern California. From there they can appear to the eye as a slowly undulating glow of gray, or even a deep crimson color.

Of course, to see the lights in all their glory you must travel toward the arctic, to places like Alaska, Iceland and Norway.

If this amazing experience is on your bucket list, or if you’d like to give a gift that is truly out of this world, check out my exciting March 2018 Alaska aurora tour, where you will learn to view and even photograph the lights like a pro. For more details about this once-in-a-lifetime cosmic adventure, visit melitatrips.com/destinations/2018/alaska/alaska.html.

Wherever you live — or wherever you travel — keep your eyes to the sky, for the aurora is one sky show you definitely don’t want to miss!