The science behind the Northern Lights - KVOA | KVOA.com | Tucson, Arizona

The science behind the Northern Lights

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TUCSON – It’s a sky show unlike any other.

On September 15th, the crew aboard the International Space Station captured the Northern Lights over portions of North America. The scientific term for this phenomena is “aurora borealis”. Here’s how they form & why we can’t see them in Tucson.

It all starts with the sun. Occasionally, solar storms develop on the sun. These storms release highly charged particles, which are carried into the Earth's atmosphere via the solar wind. Once entering the atmosphere, the particles collide with each other, setting off a spectacular canvas.

Depending on the gas in our atmosphere, the Northern Lights illuminate different colors. Nitrogen gas makes for the blue and green colors you see in Bill's photo above, while oxygen touches off brilliant reds.

Why can't we see it in the Old Pueblo? Thank the poles. The magnetic fields of the North & South Pole draw these charged particles toward them, making the Aurora Borealis visible at higher latitudes. There have been times when the Northern Lights were seen as far south as southern California, but it takes a very strong (and very rare) solar storm to produce a visible Aurora Borealis at lower latitudes.

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