Aurora Borealis

The Aurora Borealis or The Northern Lights is a natural phenomenon that happens because of electrons that are attracted to the magnetic field of the earth.

You can see the aurora in high latitude regions, for example, the Arctic and Antarctic.

Incredible Northern lights Aurora Borealis activity above the coast in Norway

These electrons come from solar winds.

The electrons mix with gases that occur in the earth s atmosphere called the ionosphere and cause it to look like the light is glowing.

When small particles come from the sun, they hit the upper atmosphere of the Earth.

These particles are full of energy and they energize the molecules and the atoms of the gases that are found in the atmosphere.  Most of these gases are in the upper part of the atmosphere.

When the atoms and molecules get this energy, they cannot hold on to it and they give it off as other energies.

That is why the lights look like colors.

These colors are called aurora.


The solar cycle causes activity on the Sun’s surface. This solar activity generated by the Sun’s magnetic fields can cause sunspots. These sunspots trigger solar storms.

These storms send particles towards the Earth mainly electrons. They collide with the Earth’s magnetic field which is an elongated sphere around the Earth called the “magnetosphere”

The Earth’s magnetic field prevents most of the solar wind from entering the atmosphere.

When Can You See the Northern Lights?

The Northern Lights can be seen in the night sky with the naked eye, at any time in the year.

But they are mostly seen between the months of March and April and then during the months of September and October.

In the far north, when the weather is chilly, you can see the Northern Lights more.

If you want to see them, you need clear skies and be away from city lights. City lights can cause light pollution so you need dark skies.

They are more visible at night between 10 P.M. and 2 A.M.

Where Can You See the Northern Lights?

You can get a better view of the spectacular light show from the northern hemisphere. Scandinavia is a popular destination for Northern Light viewing.

One of the best places to go to see the Northern Lights are in Canada in the Yukon Territory.

Other great places to see them include:

  • Sweden
  • Alaska
  • Iceland
  • Finland
  • Norway
  • Canada
  • Greenland

Why Are the Northern Lights Called Aurora Borealis?

Pierre Gassendi

The Northern Lights or the Aurora Borealis was named by a scientist, Pierre Gassendi.

He was a 17th Century French philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician.

He decided that he would name the lights “aurora” based on the Roman goddess of the dawn.

He used the word “boreas” because it means North Wind in Greek.

He is credited with naming the aurora borealis or Northern Lights, but we know that this phenomenon had been observed by ancient Greek and ancient Chinese peoples.

Stories Behind the Northern Lights

There are many stories behind the Northern Lights and how they came to be.

These stories are folktales and legends.

  • The Vikings-The Vikings believed that the lights were bright and shining because they helped to reflect the armor and the shields of the warriors that fought.  These were female warriors and they were called Valkyrie.  The Valkyrie was immortal, and they fought to protect their land.
  • The Chinese-The Chinese believe that the Northern Lights were dragons that were battling in the sky.  They believed that the lights were from good dragons and evil dragons and when they were fighting, they would breathe fire in the sky and this caused the Northern Lights.
  • The Indigenous People– The Indigenous people believed that the lights were giants that were in the sky.  They also thought that the lights might be animals that had been hunted such as the deer or the whales.  They believed that the lights helped their souls to find their way through the world.
  • Finland-People in Finland believed that the lights were an arctic fox that ran across the sky so fast that it made the lights follow after them.

What Do the Northern Lights Look Like?

Most of the time the Northern Lights look like flashes of green, red, blue, yellow, pink or purple lights.  Some people describe them as dancing through the sky.

These lights shine up to 300 kilometers from the Earth.  They can be seen from land and even from space.

They are always different, and the lights will never look the same when you see them.  Each light produces its own pattern and colors and they are just like a snowflake because they will never be repeated.

Aurora view from space
Aurora view from space

Why Are the Northern Lights Different Colors?

The Northern Lights are different colors because it depends on what kind of gases are mixing with the particles.

Some of these colors and gases include:

  • Green-this is when the particles are mixed with oxygen.  This is when the particles are closer to the atmosphere of the Earth.
  • Red-this is when the particles are mixed with oxygen.  When the lights show red, it means that the particles are higher up in the atmosphere.
  • Purple-this is when the particles are mixed with nitrogen.
  • Blue-this is also when the particles are mixed with nitrogen.

Other colors such as pink, violet, yellow, white, and orange sometimes appear, but these colors are not as common as the green, red, purple, and blue colors.

What Do the Northern Lights Sound Like?

Beautiful Aurora Borealis over Finland

Besides the lights looking beautiful, the lights also make a sound when they appear.

The noise is hard to hear because there is another noise but when the lights shine, they make a clapping like the sound that is static.

The static from the lights can also sound like it is crackling.

Southern Lights

In the South Pole, the lights are called the Southern Lights or the Aurora Australis.

These lights are not as bright as the Northern Lights, but they can still be seen.

Aurora Facts for Kids

  • There are auroras on other plants such as Uranus, Saturn, Neptune, and Jupiter.
  • The sun cycles the Earth every 11 years, so the Northern Lights are easiest to see every 11 years when the new solar cycle begins.
  • If the sun has a lot of activity, the Northern Lights can look like they are further away.
  • When the solar winds pass the Earth, the winds have plasma particles that pull towards the magnetic Earth.
  • Plasma particles are also known as an ionized gas.
  • Sometimes the Northern Lights look like Curtains.
  • The magnetic field that pulls the particles is the same magnetic field that helps birds to know which way to migrate.
  • Green is the brightest color of the Northern Lights.
  • Since green is the brightest color of the Northern Lights, it is the color that we see the most.
  • It is best to see the Northern Lights when it is very dark outside.
  • Most of the Northern Light shows last between an hour and 90 minutes.
  • When there are strong solar winds, the lights might be seen in places that they normally are not seen.

What Did You Learn?

  • What are the Northern Lights?
    The Northern Lights are particles of molecules and atoms that have been electrically charged and the charge moves toward the magnetic field in the North and South Pole, making a light show.  The particles mix with different gases to get different colored lights.
  • What is another name for the Northern Lights?
    The Northern Lights are also called Aurora Borealis.  There are also Southern Lights and they are called Aurora Australis.
  • Where can you see the Northern Lights?
    You can see the Northern Lights if you go far North or far South toward the poles.
  • Do the lights come out at certain times?
    Most of the lights are seen when it is really dark such as after 10 P.M.  The lights are best seen if the sky is clear and very dark.
  • Why do the particles come to the Earth?
    The particles come to the Earth because of solar winds from the sun.  The sun releases these particles and they blow towards the atmosphere.  These particles help make the lights shine when they mix with the gases.