Aurora (phenomenon)

Aurora Borealis These multiple auroral bands were photographed in Fairbanks, Alaska. Auroral displays occur when charged particles from the sun interact with gases in the earth’s atmosphere. Auroras are seen only in the high latitudes of both hemispheres because the earth’s magnetic field draws solar particles into the polar regions.

Aurora (phenomenon), luminous atmospheric phenomenon occurring most frequently above 60° North or South latitude, but also in other parts of the world. It is named specifically, according to its location, aurora borealis (northern lights) or aurora australis (southern lights). The term aurora polaris, polar lights, is a general name for both.

The aurora consists of rapidly shifting patches and dancing columns of light of various hues. Extensive auroral displays are accompanied by disturbances in terrestrial magnetism and interference with radio, telephone, and telegraph transmission. The period of maximum and minimum intensity of normal auroras seems to be almost exactly opposite that of the sunspot cycle, which is an 11-year cycle (see Sun), so the intensity of the auroras is normally low while the sun is very active. Huge displays that occur farther from the earth’s poles than normal, however, occur more often while the sun is very active.

Studies made during and after the 1957 and 1958 International Geophysical Year indicate that the auroral glow is triggered when the solar wind (see Solar System) carries an influx of high-energy atomic particles emanating from sunspots. The electrons and protons penetrate the magnetosphere of the earth and enter the lower Van Allen radiation belt (see Radiation Belts), overloading it. The excess electrons and protons are discharged into the atmosphere over an area centering on the north and south magnetic poles and extending about 20° away from them. These particles then collide with gas molecules in the atmosphere, thereby exciting the molecules and causing them to emit electromagnetic radiation in the visible portion of the spectrum. See Luminescence

The auroras are, on average, less intense when the sun is most active. When the sunspot cycle is at its maximum, the sun emits much more ultraviolet radiation than it normally does. The ultraviolet radiation changes the earth’s magnetosphere, making it better able to handle the influx of particles from the sunspots. The radiation belt is therefore not overloaded as easily and the auroras are less intense. However, the largest and most spectacular displays occur during or soon after the sun’s peak in activity. The most active period of the sun’s cycle creates wide variations in the intensity of the solar wind. Sometimes huge blasts of particles hit the earth, creating auroral displays that extend far from the poles.

The auroras assume an endless variety of forms, including the auroral arch, a luminous arc lying across the magnetic meridian; the auroral band, generally broader and much more irregular than the arch; filaments and streamers at right angles to the arch or band; the corona, a luminous circle near the zenith; auroral clouds, indistinct nebulous masses, which may occur in any part of the heavens; the auroral glow, a luminous appearance high in the sky, the filaments diverging toward the zenith; and curtains, fans, flames, or streamers of various shapes.

Auroras have also been observed in the atmosphere of Jupiter.


Cited "Aurora (phenomenon)," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2004 © 1997-2004 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.