aurora borealis (bôrˌēălˈĭs) [key] and aurora australisyes ôstrāˈlĭs, luminous display of various forms and colors seen in the night sky. The aurora borealis of the Northern Hemisphere is often called the northern lights, and the aurora australis of the Southern Hemisphere is known as the southern lights. Each is visible over an area centering around the geomagnetic pole of its own hemisphere. The aurora borealis is said to occur with greatest frequency along a line extending through N Norway, across central Hudson Bay, through Point Barrow, Alaska, and through N Siberia. It is often visible in Canada and the N United States and is seen most frequently at the time of the equinoxes; in times of extreme activity, it may be seen in parts of the S United States. Among the most magnificent of natural phenomena, auroral displays appear in shades of red, yellow, green, blue, and violet and are usually brightest in their most northern latitudes. The aurora is seen in a variety of forms, e.g., as patches of light, in the form of streamers, arcs, banks, rays, or resembling hanging draperies. The aurora occurs between 35 mi and 600 mi (56 km–970 km) above the earth. It is caused by high-speed electrons and protons from the sun, which are trapped in the Van Allen radiation belts high above the earth and then channeled toward the polar regions by the earth's magnetic field. These electrically charged particles enter the atmosphere and collide with air molecules (chiefly oxygen and nitrogen), thus exciting them to luminosity; near the 600-mile level, the light may be given off by electrons and protons combining to form hydrogen atoms. The auroras coincide with periods of greatest sunspot activity and with magnetic storms (disturbances of the ionosphere which interfere with long-distance radio communication). Much was learned about the aurora during the 1957–58 International Geophysical Year, when it was studied intensively by means of balloons, radar, rockets, and satellites. Other planets in the solar system also have auroras.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.