A recent aurora

From Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy site we have a video showing the aurora borealis from Tromso Norway on January 24.  As you may know, there’s been a lot of activity on the Sun in the last few weeks, and, as Phil explains (and I’ve explained before), solar activity increases the energy of atoms in the Earth’s atmosphere, which subsequently release that energy as a burst of light. Different atoms produce different colors.

It’s an amazing phenomenon, and one that I dearly hope to see before I die.

As a bonus, you can see a shooting star at 2:30.  This shows that, unlike most aurora videos, this is in real-time rather than a time-lapse production.

30 Comments

  1. FredBloggs
    Posted January 30, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    Isn’t it the excitation of Oxygen and Nitrogen caused by upward-flowing current induced by the magnetohydrodynamic effect of the solar wind on the earths magnetic field?

    Or something like that

  2. Bobo
    Posted January 30, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    “It’s an amazing phenomenon, and one that I dearly hope to see before I die.”

    As opposed to seeing it ~after~ you die?

    • Notagod
      Posted February 2, 2012 at 11:56 am | Permalink

      Seems clear enough to me. Obviously, no one will see anything after they die.

  3. sasqwatch
    Posted January 30, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    Reminds me of growing up in Alaska.

    We never had the Star of Bethlehem right in the middle of the field of view, no matter where you looked, though. Isn’t Baby Jeebus wunnerful?

  4. Posted January 30, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    You certainly don’t have to go to Norway to see an Aurora. We live close to latitude 51 in Canada and we see, and hear, Aurorae at least twice every winter. They make a very loud crackling sound sometimes.

    • Posted January 30, 2012 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

      The sound is controversial. It’s only been reported anecdotally, and the aurora happens at altitudes where the air isn’t dense enough for sound to carry.

      More info: http://www2.gi.alaska.edu/ScienceForum/ASF6/698.html

      http://www.pfrr.alaska.edu/aurora/faq.htm#sound

      FWIW, I’ve seen some extremely bright, active displays directly overhead and have never heard a sound.

    • Dermot C
      Posted January 30, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

      It was seen on the night of 22/23 Jan at 54 degrees from The Tan Hill Inn, allegedly Britain’s highest pub, in Yorkshire – v. unusual to get that far south, apparently.

    • sasqwatch
      Posted January 30, 2012 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

      I have also seen many bright displays (Anchorage AK) over the course of 12 years there, and *thought* I heard them once – as a very, very faint sizzling, like an ultra-high frequency musical saw or something. If true, it would’ve had to have been some kind of ground-based effect — (if not in the head, as the above article details). I had heard speculation that the multitude of pine needles on nearby trees could have something to do with it.

      Whatever it is, if it exists, I’d really like to know. It would clear up one long-standing mystery for me (another being the cause of “piss-shivers”).

      • Posted January 30, 2012 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

        This makes me want to set up a microphone out at our research site, on the off chance it does get something :)

        • sasqwatch
          Posted January 30, 2012 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

          Set up 3 or four… I’d suggest one clipped to a pine tree, another next to a really fuzzy bit of fur, and one far away from such things. (I know… these kinds of mics are eeexpensive) ;-)

  5. Posted January 30, 2012 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    It matters not a whit to me that the sound, according to musubk has “only been reported anecdotally” or that, according to Dermot C. an aurora is very unusual at latitudes as low as mine. I live in a small village in the interior of British Columbia, where the sidewalks “are rolled up and put away for the night” around 8pm. The altitude of the village is 1500 feet +/- and it is surrounded by mountains. There is no sound in the village after dark apart from the occasional dog barking or coyote howling, neither one of which resembles the crackling of an aurora. Just so you both know that I am NOT delusional.

    • Posted January 30, 2012 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

      Didn’t say you were delusional so much, but the sound most likely isn’t coming from the lights in the sky. Researchers do measure infrasound coming from auroras, but the distance to the aurora is so great that the time delay between something happening up there and the sound on the ground is on the order of 5-10 minutes. If you’re hearing sound that matches what’s happening in the sky, it must certainly be coming from a closer source. One suggestion is static electric discharges due to the electric fields associated with auroras. A more intriguing possibility to me is synesthesia, which would explain why only some observers report the sounds, why they don’t show up in recordings, and why many people report them to match the motion in the sky.

      My advisor thinks he can recall one researcher who claimed to have recorded the sound, but I can’t find a paper on it. To be fair, I don’t think there’s been a major effort to get sensitive enough recording equipment to a quiet enough location.

      • sasqwatch
        Posted January 30, 2012 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

        …and I’d like to mention that on the occasion that I *thought* I heard something, it was one of those 30-below nights, with a deathly calm. Absolutely no wind whatsoever. The whole sky was lit up brighter than I had ever seen it, and I was lying down in the snow. I suppose it’d make more sense that the sound was from the tips of the hairs of my parka hood (or synesthesia, which would be a pretty cool thing, really).

        I don’t remember closing my eyes much, if at all. Too fascinating to do that.

      • Posted January 30, 2012 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

        @musubk: I’m sorry – I didn’t mean to be rude. It’s a pity that recording equipment as sensitive as I am,(when challenged!)could not be available on demand in my backyard. I tried to paint a picture of my delightful little village in an effort to convey its utterly peaceful ambiance.
        Cheers,
        John Perkins

        • Diane G.
          Posted January 31, 2012 at 1:51 am | Permalink

          And it sounds most delightful indeed!

        • Dermot C
          Posted January 31, 2012 at 3:46 am | Permalink

          No ‘challenge’ intended, John; I’m just envious that you get them and I, at 52 degrees in Birmingham, England, don’t.

          Saw the year 2,000 solar eclipse in Cornwall; now I could swear that the birds went silent for that, during the eclipse. (Isn’t there another recent post discussing animals and their reaction to huge natural events?).

          • Dermot C
            Posted January 31, 2012 at 3:47 am | Permalink

            Should be 1999.

            • Posted January 31, 2012 at 10:59 am | Permalink

              @Dermot C.
              About 35 years ago my wife and I were in Golden
              Gate Park in San Francisco. Suddenly all the birds in the thousands of trees in the park went silent, then, as one, they took to the air. Then, seconds later, there was a loud rumbling beneath our feet and all around us – it was a major earth tremor. You mentioned in your response about the reaction of ‘ctitters’
              to natural phenomena – that experience was among the eeriest I’ve ever had.

              • Dermot C
                Posted January 31, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

                I’m a little less envious of that – sounds frightening. We, about 8 of us, videoed the solar eclipse, which lasted about 2 minutes, played it back, and discovered that we had lost the power of coherent speech. All we could exclaim for all that time was, “Wowwww…amaaaazing.”

  6. Jonboy
    Posted January 30, 2012 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    You can keep your burning bushes and talking snakes,the natural world has gawd beat hands down

  7. Chad
    Posted January 30, 2012 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful! I saw the equal of these months ago while flying in northern Manitoba. The aurora were striking all night, but for a few brief minutes, they exploded in white and purple in addition to the ever-present green. We normally have to turn down the cockpit lights to stargaze or capture the aurora on film, but that night, I could read my checklist by the light in the sky.

  8. Posted January 30, 2012 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

    Gorgeous! enjoyed it immensely!! Thanks!

  9. MAUCH
    Posted January 30, 2012 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

    Years ago my grandfather took me to the arctic as a child and I had the good fortune to see an aurora borealis display like this. It’s even more spectatular than what is seen here when you see it person with your grampa. It appears so low in the sky that you seem to be almost inside the curtains of moving light. It is truly a memory I will never forget.

  10. Posted January 30, 2012 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

    An incredible sight, its something I have always wanted to see. The stars here are lovely but there really is nothing as astounding as the lights in the north.

  11. starskeptic
    Posted January 30, 2012 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

    forget the sound of the Aurora – more Martijn de Man please…

  12. TrineBM
    Posted January 31, 2012 at 3:05 am | Permalink

    I’ve seen a little bit of aurora twice. Once was from the cockpit of an aeroplane flying between New York and Copenhagen. The 1.st pilot was one of my dad’s bridge-partners and he invited us into the cockpit to have a look, and while he was telling us about all the stuff in there, he suddenly pointed down and said “look, aurora” and thin wisps of cream coloured light dripped down in front of the plane. The second time was as far south as here in Denmark. It must have been som 11 or 12 years ago while we were driving at night and to the right of us were a funny deep red smear across the sky. I insisted that we stop and we went out and looked at the red sky-smear for some time. My boyfriend (of more than 20 years now) didn’t believe it was an aurora, but it was confirmed the same evening in the news. Lots of people had seen it. Both times were NOTHING like the amazing video here though.

  13. Dominic
    Posted January 31, 2012 at 4:43 am | Permalink

    I lived in Tromsø for a year when I was studying Norwegian at UCL… happy days!

  14. Posted January 31, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    It surprises me that we don’t hear more about mythology associated with aurorae. “Dance of the Spirits” rather sums it up. In the pre-scientific world, it would be hard not to associate intelligent agency with such displays.

    • Dermot C
      Posted January 31, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

      Believe it or not, there appears to be no secure reference in Norse mythology and history to ‘norðrljós’, the northern lights, until 1250 C.E. in the book about Greenland ‘Konungs Skuggsjá’ – ‘The King’s Mirror’. The speculation is that this lack is explained by the idea that magnetic north was much further away from Scandinavia and Iceland during the Viking age (ca. 800-1100 C.E.); for instance, during the 20th century it moved 1100 km, so I suppose the AB’s absence from Viking legend is reasonable.

      Maybe the Inuit…?

      • Diane G.
        Posted February 3, 2012 at 1:21 am | Permalink

        Now that is truly fascinating! I was aware, of course, of the movement of the magnetic pole, but did not fully realize how much of an effect that might have made in historic times.


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