at the Water's Edge

Living life and learning all I can along the way!

The Northern Lights

From my understanding, the northern lights, also known as the aurora borealis, are caused by the collision of charged particles from the earth’s magnetosphere and solar wind with atoms in the high altitudes of the earth’s atmosphere.  The earth’s magnetic poles guide these charged particles to the higher (and lower) latitudes, near the poles, where the auroras are normally seen.  When an energetic particle collides with an atom, the atom takes some of that energy and stores it, becoming an “excited atom”.  The excited atoms become “grounded” or return to their normal state by emitting a photon of light -- which is what we see in an aurora.  What’s interesting is that the color of the light emitted depends on the type of atom or molecule it came from.  Oxygen will emit green or brownish-red and nitrogen emits blue or red.  Combined, they produce a brilliant light show for anyone lucky enough to see it.  Green is the most common aurora color, and blue is the least common.  At 43 degrees north latitude, I feel lucky to see any color.

Last week, I saw the northern lights for the third time.  However, I’m not really sure the first time counted.  I was 11 years old, away for my first summer camp experience.  In the middle of the night, another girl and I got up to walk to the bathroom from our cabin.  On the way back, we noticed some light through the trees, which we assumed was lightning, and hastened back to the cabin not wanting to get rained on.  The next day at breakfast, the counselors announced that the northern lights were out the previous night and asked if anybody had seen them.  I could’ve kicked myself!

The second time I saw the northern lights, I at least recognized them for what they were.  I still describe this scene as the most amazing night sky I have ever seen.  We were camping in Manistee and went down to the beach at night (my absolute favorite thing to do).  As we crested the top of the sand dune that led back down to the beach along Lake Michigan, I took a survey of the sky before me.  To my left, the moon was setting--a large gibbous moon, with a few thin clouds around it illuminated with red.  I had never seen such a beautiful moonset.  Then I looked up above me just in time to see a large, streaking shooting star (the reason I come to the beach at night).  Finally, off to the right, the northern lights were softly glowing in the sky.  I didn’t know where to look!  But, I knew I had to keep my eye on the aurora, as it surely wouldn’t last too long.  It was mostly a greenish light that subtly danced in the sky a short while before fading away.  I was thrilled to have seen the northern lights and to have actually watched them this time.

The third time was just last week.  I was on my way home, driving in the car, when my dad called.  When I answered, he immediately asked me excitedly, “Are you outside right now?!”  No, I was in the car driving.  “The northern lights are out!!”  Sure enough, as I looked up out my windshield, I could make out the haze of red from the northern lights.  I immediately called Tom, and was home within a few minutes.  From my yard, I could make out a blanket of hazy red that spread fairly high in the sky, as well as streaks of green coming up from the horizon.  While I missed the brightest parts of the aurora, I was so excited to see them and to see a color besides green!  It is pretty rare to be able to see the northern lights this far south, to see them so high up in the sky, and to see some variance in color here.  I was ecstatic.  I wish that I could’ve taken a picture or somehow captured it, but soon after I got home, the red dissipated and the green faded shortly thereafter.  Nevertheless, some people more talented and prepared than I, did capture some beautiful images of last week’s aurora.  Check this out:

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Hi there! My name is Dana and I live in West Michigan with my husband, Tom and our dog Copernicus. I created this space as a place to share the things I learn along this journey I call life. I work in marketing and I'm a sort of Jane of All Trades, interested in all things nature, gardening, cooking, exploring and learning new things. This blog is a conglomeration of my interests, hobbies, life and life lessons. Thanks for stopping by!