Northern Lights

By: Ashley Davis

People in the world’s far north watch the most spectacular of all celestial mysteries. A rainbow of colors came and went through the skies as though they have lives of their own. On most dark, clear nights they would appear, and would only disappear during the summer when the sun never sets.

Vikings would see flashes of warriors’ shields and swords. They would see Valkyries carrying messages to earth. Some felt the red lights they would see were “Blood Lights” that forecasted doom.

The Sami people would rush their children indoors, and would travel cautiously. They thought the lights could drop to earth and burn them. When they feared the angry gods, they chanted:

“The northern light,

The northern light,

Flickering, flickering

Hammer in its leg

Birch bark in its hand.”

The hammer was the vengeance of spirits and the birch bark was kindling for fiery desctuction.

During the Viking Age, most people in Europe believed the magical lights of the north carried important messages, omens, and warnings from the gods. However, in 1230 AD a book called The King’s Mirror, a book of knowledge for future Norwegian Kings, stated the lights were natural events that could be explained.

In 1913, Kristian Olaf Birkeland explained how the Norwegian Lights form. For over 30 years Birkeland studied the earth’s magnetism and the aurora. He wrote a book about his discoveries and invented a machine that made artificial auroras. He presented his idea to his fellow scientists and to King Haakon VII. The world thought his ideas were wrong.

Today, we know Birkeland was correct to put the sun, earth’s magnetism, and auroras together. This is how it happens: explosions on the sun will send clouds of tiny particles into space. These particles race towards earth where they are drawn towards its north and south geomagnetic poles. The poles pull the particles into earth’s atmosphere where they collide with gases. The collisions create a glow of energy. The glow appears in large oval rings around the top and bottom of earth.