If you haven’t seen an Aurora Borealis, not on TV or YouTube, but first-hand, in true glorious technicolour, I urge you to do so sometime. It is magnificent as it is surreal. A fantastical wonder of the skies.
According to Yupik culture- an indigenous Alaskan people- the Aurora Borealis is believed to be where the ancestors go. “So, when the lights appear in the sky, our ancestors are dancing for us,” says Piiyuuk, a 23-year-old native Alaskan who was kind enough to take me on a small tour.
According to the people of Alaska, the phenomenon is not called “Northern Lights” as we do from our Western end. It is after all, directly above their heads and not in the ‘north’. The Aurora Borealis is believed to make a beautiful sound, like music from a distant land. Perhaps, further reinforcing the Yupiks’ belief that it is the music of their ancestors.
“People say you can’t hear them,” beams Piiyuuk proudly, “But when I’m home I can…it is a sort of grrr, like a soft purr.” Then she laughs aloud, as if happy to be one of a chosen few lucky people.
“We dance for our ancestors too,” she continues. “But there is a rule,” she whispers cautiously, making me suddenly nervous. “We never whistle at it because then they will come and take you away to the spirit world before it is your time.”
The science of the Aurora Borealis
The science behind this spectacular phenomenon is just as intriguing as the traditional beliefs. Aurora Borealis are actually light storms from the sun.
According to scientists, it occurs about 60 miles above the earth’s surface. These sun storms take approximately 2 – 3 days to reach the Earth where they interact with its atmosphere and magnetic fields. The solar storm is led along the lines of the magnetic fields where they emit an electrical charge -not different from a neon signpost- with the molecules and atoms in the Earth’s atmosphere. So, people can see colourful spectacles of reds, greens and blues. My favourite is the greens. Somehow, they have a reassuring quality about them.
There are also Auroras on Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus, but scientists say that Earth has the most beautiful display. I’ll drink to that any day.
The colourful displays occur directly above both magnetic poles. While they are called Aurora Borealis in the northern hemisphere, in the southern hemisphere they are known as Aurora Australis.
Some years, there are more colourful displays than others
This is possible because the sun is a variable star. They magnetic activity can increase every 11 years or so till it reaches a peak where it gradually fades out. During that period of strong magnetic activity, the Aurora Borealis appear to be very intense. As it approaches the end of its solar cycle, the intensity reduces.
As Piyuuk took me around her home town, showing me the best places to view the Aurora, I couldn’t help thinking that I would be back again and soon.
If you would like to see Auroras in Fairbanks, Alaska, they appear between August 21 and April 21.