Nature's fireworks display!

Nature's fireworks display!

Sun storms and bright lights

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Lot's of people enjoy fireworks, whether it's 5th November or Thanksgiving, Chinese New Year or Duwali.

But nature won't be outdone and, thanks to Earth's magnetic field and furious explosions of energy from our sun, we have the northern lights.

The northern lights look like a shimmering curtain of glowing colours, dancing across the night sky. Normally, they are seen above the arctic circle, in places like Norway. Their proper name is "aurora borealis", which is Latin for "northern dawn".

In the south, above the Antarctic, you can see the southern lights. They are called "aurora australis".

Have a look at this video of the northern lights. What do you think causes them? Find out after the video!

What causes the northern lights?

Every day, solar storms tear across the surface of the Sun. These solar storms blow a stream of particles towards Earth, called the solar wind. The particles in the solar wind have lots of energy.

The energetic solar wind particles collide with the Earth's atmosphere and hit oxygen and nitrogen atoms. Some of the energy from the particles in the solar wind gets passed to the oxygen and nitrogen atoms. This makes the oxygen and nitrogen atoms glow different colours.

The result is an amazing explosion that fills the sky.  The photo below, taken in Iceland, is a great display.  It even includes a shooting star for good measure!

Northern Lights in Iceland

A spectacular display of Northern Lights over Oraefajokull in
eastern Iceland (c) E. Sigurmundsson (LocalGuide.is)

When can you see them?

The Earth's magnetic field pushes most of the solar wind particles to the north and south poles. This is why the best place to see the northern lights is in the arctic.

Sometimes the Sun becomes very active and sends out even more energetic solar wind particles. This is when people in the UK can see the northern lights (although only if it is a clear night). People in Scotland have the best chance.

Solar storms are sometimes reported on the news, or you can look at websites like Aurora Watch to find out when one might be on it's way.

Try and get to a dark place away from street lights, so ask a grown up to go with you. This is the best place to see stars and to look out for the best fireworks display in the solar system!

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