Lights are thrilling spectacle

Aug, 4, 2008

by Roz Kohls

I have lived in Minnesota for more than 30 years, and yet I still get a big kick out of seeing northern lights.

I grew up in Miami, Fla., far to the south. It’s a big city full of artificial lights overpowering the night sky. I never had a chance to see the aurora borealis, the effect’s technical name, when I was a kid.

NASA released findings July 24 that magnetic explosions about one-sixth to one-third of the way to the moon cause the spectacle, according to Marcia Dunn, an aerospace writer with the Associated Press.

The phenomenon is known as magnetic reconnection. “Every so often, the earth’s magnetic field lines are stretched like rubber bands by solar energy, snap, are thrown back to earth, and reconnect, in effect creating a short circuit.

“It’s this stored-up energy that powers the northern and southern lights, or in other words, causes them to dance,” Dunn said.

This is much less romantic than what I imagined. Short circuits and magnetic fields sound dry and technical. I prefer “dancing lights.”

Also, until recently, I didn’t know about the existence of southern lights, aurora australis. I thought the phenomenon was only in the north. It’s not.

Second, I always believed it was sunlight reflecting off the snow and ice within the Arctic Circle. The first time I saw northern lights with color reinforced this misconception.

It was in November 1991, a couple of weeks after the Halloween mega-snowstorm. I was driving a Mayer Lutheran High School girl home after play practice that night. She lived in the country, so the roads were dark. The northern lights appeared suddenly, were a brilliant pinkish-red, and filled about a quarter of the sky.

It was so spectacular, I stopped the car on the shoulder of the road, and got out to look at it. My daughters were in the car, too. I remember it really bothered them that I stopped on a dark, deserted road in temperatures well below freezing, and wanted me to get going again.

I couldn’t help it, though. I never seem to get enough of northern lights.

Eventually, I learned the lights are caused by magnetic energy.

It was also several more years before I saw them flicker and move. Usually they looked like a glowing curtain of haze stretched across the sky. I could tell it wasn’t a cloud because the vertical lines in the “curtain” were unnaturally straight.

I recall meteorologists were predicting it was a good night to view them. We drove out into the country between Glencoe and Silver Lake to see the show. Sure enough, the lights danced and darted across the sky.

Even now, whenever the late night sky seems unusually bright, I look for “clouds” containing unnaturally straight lines. Then I know I’m in for a treat.