Auroras: What Causes the Northern and Southern Lights

Auroras occur throughout the year, but the long nights of winter at high latitudes provide an optimal environment in which to see this amazing natural phenomenon.

These colorful patterns of light that dance across the night sky are the result of charged particles from the sun interacting with the Earth’s atmosphere. Originating in a massive explosion on the sun known as a coronal mass ejection, the protons and electrons travel nearly 93 million miles before some of them reach the Earth. When they encounter the planet’s magnetic field, they are pulled toward the poles, where the magnetic force is strongest. There, they interact with atmospheric gases and produce the variety of colors we see. The main factor in which colors are displayed, however, is altitude. Different gases, such as nitrogen and oxygen, vary in concentration at different levels of the atmosphere.

Oxygen molecules can generate green auroras up to 150 miles above sea level and red auroras further up. Nitrogen molecules produce blue lights up to 60 miles above the ground and violet colored lights at higher levels. Auroras, in general, extend from 50 miles to as high as 400 miles above the Earth’s surface.

The word aurora is Latin for dawn. Therefore, the “aurora borealis”, the northern lights, means “dawn of the north”. At the South Pole, the lights are known as the “aurora australis”, which means “dawn of the south”.

Aurora Borealis over Alaska. Credit SmithsonianMag