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Moment of Science: Aurora Borealis

Credit the Sun for Earth’s biggest nighttime spectacular
Published: Nov. 30, 2021 at 5:08 PM EST
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From lightning to sunsets, northwest Ohio is no stranger to light shows in the sky... but there’s one that proves elusive for many of us south of the Arctic Circle. This week, we’re taking a look at the spectacle of “aurora borealis”, or the Northern Lights! Highlights:

* The Sun’s surface runs at about 10,000°F, but there are certain darker patches where surface temps are slightly cooler (about 6,500°F). “Sunspots” -- not imaginative, but it gets the point across -- are often spotted in pairs, and the magnetic field from all those electrically-charged gasses is actually what keeps those core temperatures from surfacing. Those spots will occasionally hurl those charged gasses out as “solar flares”, but it’s the “coronal mass ejection” out in one direction that can really mess with us on Earth. (NASA compares them to a muzzle flash versus a cannonball.)

* Solar flares can still disrupt radio waves, but CMEs have the power to fry our electric grids if we’re not prepared -- in fact, that happened to our telegraph system in its early days back in 1859. So what does all of this have to do with pretty lights in the sky? When the plasma from CMEs hits Earth at over a million miles an hour, the planet’s magnetic field absorbs or deflects a lot of it... but at the poles, that plasma drives right in for a spectacular display.

* The color of auroras actually depends on the height and type of molecules that the plasma interacts with. Oxygen and nitrogen are the main players, and green colors from oxygen tend to be the most visible... think of it like neon lights glowing different colors depending on their content.

* The Northern Lights tend to get all the press, but “Aurora Australis” is no less amazing. We’re just biased since 88% of Earth’s population happens to live in this hemisphere.

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