The Auroras: A Qualitative View

The name Aurora comes from the Roman goddess of dawn.

Auroras: radiant emission from the upper atmosphere that occurs in middle and high latitudes as luminous streamers, bands, etc. caused when air molecules are excited by charged particles from the solar wind.


More particles are thrown out into the solar wind causing the interaction between the earth's geomagnetic field and the plasma itself.

Occurs usually after unusual activity on the surface of the sun. The precipitating particles collide with the neutral atmosphere and lose their energy.

Collisions from above


One of many manifestations of an array of phenomena which occur in the near earth environment as a result of interaction between plasma from the solar wind and the earth's geomagnetic field.

The frequencies of occurrences of auroras in the zenith when plotted against geomagnetic coordinates and local time form oval-shaped patterns.

Auroral oval is bounded by the greater of 70% frequency of occurrence.

The auroral zone's center is at 67 degrees latitude.

Aurora appear most frequently at the midnight latitude.

The Auroral Oval



Color Types

A Bit of Folklore

As far back as the 17th century, there have been many accounts of auroral sightings. Since no scientific advancements in the explanation of these forms were made until the late 19th century by Birkeland, there, of course, were spiritual interpretations.

Eskimo folklore associates the aurora with the spirits or souls of the deceased at play, using a walrus head for a football.

Finnish folklore attributes the aurora to the fox. Revontuli, the modern Finnish word for aurora, means fox-fire, and legend recounts that when Repu (fox) turns, his fur flashes; he strikes fire with his tail but a fire of no heat. Folklore says that Repu's fur can be used for light in a gunpowder cellar.

In Middle-Age Europe, the lights were thought to be the reflections of heavenly warriors who were given a posthumous award of battling in the skies forever.

A Siberian tribe called the Chuvash thought of the aurora as a god. The name of their god Suratan-Tura was the name for the aurora. This god was associated with birth and helping women through agonies of childbirth. It was believed that the sky gave birth during a bright aurora.

A Bright Moment in History

Many monumental events occurred involving the studies of the auroras, but with the help of his colleagues, Kristian Birkeland of Norway proved why auroras existed.

Expanding upon the ideas of J.J. Thomson, Birkeland conducted experiments using his terella apparatus. He projected electrons in an evacuated chamber toward the terella, which was to imitate the earth. Birkeland was able to see where the electrons impinged upon the sphere.

Birkeland's studies inspired many others such as Carl Stormer, who computed the trajectories of charged particles in the dipole field.

An Idea of what Birkeland saw (gif).

Other Items

Other Facts

Back to