Here’s a shot of the northern lights, or aurora borealis, I took in September 2006 from just near McCarthy, in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska. I was guiding a trip into the park, and we were late leaving Anchorage, because of delays with one of the guest’s flight to Alaska. We also stopped to shoot some scenics along the way, as the afternoon light got nice, so we were pretty late arriving in McCarthy. That turned out to be a blessing, as we hadn’t been in the parking lot for 2 minutes when the sky put on its show; the northern lights are just a magical experience. The 3 of us jumped out, set up tripods, and started shooting. It was awesome. What a great start to a fantastic trip we had.
Wikipedia says this about this northern lights:
“Auroras are now known to be caused by the collision of charged particles (e.g. electrons), found in the magnetosphere, with atoms in the Earth’s upper atmosphere (at altitudes above 80 km). These charged particles are typically energized to levels between 1 thousand and 15 thousand electron volts and, as they collide with atoms of gases in the atmosphere, the atoms become energized. Shortly afterwards, the atoms emit their gained energy as light.
Emissions from atomic oxygen dominate light emitted by the Aurora, resulting in a greenish glow (at a wavelength of 557.7 nm) and especially at lower energy levels and at higher altitudes, the dark-red glow (at 630.0 nm of wavelength). ”
Make sense? There you have it folks — the northern lights are tiny little things in the air, like dust, so small we can’t even see them, that glow because they crash into other tiny little things we can’t see. How cool is that?
They’re called the aurora borealis after the Roman Goddess of the dawn, “Aurora”, and the Greek god of Wind, “Borealis”. That sounds reasonable, except that the Aurora Borealis isn’t visible in either Greece or Rome. Seems to me then we should allow people who do see them regularly to name them.
The Scottish called them “the merry dancers” or na fir-chlis. The Scandinavians name for the northern lights translates as “herring flash”. It was believed that northern lights were the reflections cast by large swarms of herring into the sky. The name they gave the northern lights was “norðurljós” — which I have no idea how to pronounce.
The Norse folks also called them “the fires that surround the North and South edges of the world”.
In central Asia the belief of the Chuvash peoples is that the lights were the god/goddess Suratan-tura (Birth-giving Heaven).
The Algonquin Indian folklore proclaimed that the northern lights were their ancestors dancing around a ceremonial fire. The Athabascan people who lived in what is now known as Wrangell-St. Elias National Park saw messages from their dead, the “sky dwellers.”
I love this kind of way of seeing the world. It’s beautiful, much more beautiful than “the northern lights”. And as beautiful as they are, it seems fitting we should have a beautiful way to refer to them.
More photos of Wrangell-St. Elias.