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Lesson 24

Aurora Borealis - The Northern Lights

Lessons >>> Lesson 24

To a person seeing the Aurora Borealis or "northern lights" for the first time, it is an uncanny awe-inspiring spectacle. Sometimes it begins as a glow of red on the northern horizon, ominously suggesting a great fire, gradually changing to a curtain of violet-white, or greenish-yellow light extending from east to west. Sometimes this may be transformed to appear as fold upon fold of luminous draperies that march majestically across the sky; sometimes as a vast multitude of gigantic flaming swords furiously slashing at the heavens; sometimes as a flowing crown with long undulating colored streamers fanning downward and outward.

The Northern lights have been described in ancient times by the Eskimos, American Indians, polar explorers and even mentioned in the Old Testament.

On some occasions, when the Aurora reached the middle latitudes of France and Italy, it struck fear into the population. When they reached these latitudes, they were a dark red in color and thought of as an omen of disaster and outbreak of a war. More recently, the northern lights were taken as omens of war when they were visible from London during Germany's 1939 blitzkrieg, and on December 7, 1941, when they were seen as far south as Cleveland, Ohio, on the day that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

The ancient people were awed by the Aurora. Folklore abounds with explanations of the origins of the spellbinding celestial lights. Every Northern culture has legends about the lights and often associates them with life after death. Various cultures have explained the Aurora Borealis as dancing spirits or blood raining from the clouds. Some believed they were caused as a result of fungi on rotting wood, others believed they were magic, while many believed they were in the presence of temperamental gods and summoning spirits. Aurora was the Roman goddess of the dawn. Boreal is a Latin word, meaning "north." Thus, the northern lights. In the Antarctic, the lights are called the Aurora Australis, or southern lights.

The Finnish name for the lights (revontulet) comes from a Sami, or Lapp, legend whereby the tail of a fox running along snow-covered fells strikes the snow drifts, sending a trail of sparks into the sky. Revontulet literally means "foxfire". The Vikings believed the aurora was the beautiful maidens called Valkyries, which escorted those killed in battle to the gods. The Sami people of Lapland believed they had power over the lights, and whistling under them would cause them to come closer. The Inuit of Alaska believed that the lights were the spirits of the animals they hunted: the seals, salmon, deer and beluga whales. Many ancient peoples would not stare at or speak of the aurora, due to a fear of insulting their divine nature.

The East Greenland Eskimos believed the Aurora is the spirits of children who died at birth. The Point Barrow Eskimos considered the Aurora an evil thing. In the past they carried knives to defend themselves from the lights. Most Eskimo groups have a myth of the northern lights as the spirits of the dead playing ball with a walrus head or skull. The Eskimos of Nunivak Island had the opposite idea, of walrus spirits playing with a human skull.

However enchanting and intriguing explanations of the indigenous people were, we didn't actually begin to find the real rationalization for the Northern Lights until 1774, when Jean Jacque Dortous de Mairan of France linked the auroras to solar activity.

The origin of the Aurora is 93 million miles (149 million km) from Earth at the Sun. The sun gives off high-energy charged particles (electrons and positive ions) that travel out into space at speeds of 200 to 440 miles per second. A "cloud" or gas of such ions and electrons is called plasma. The stream of plasma coming from the sun is known as the solar wind. As the solar wind interacts with the fringes of the earth's magnetic field, the particles are "shocked" into flowing around the earth.

Most of the energetic particles from the Sun are deflected around the Earth by the magnetosphere, but some get trapped. Electrons trapped in the Earth's magnetic field (the magnetic mirror effect) are accelerated along the magnetic field toward the Polar Regions and then strike the gases into the upper layer of the atmosphere, called the ionosphere.

In the ionosphere, the speeding electrons collide violently with gas atoms. This gives the gas atoms energy, which causes them to release both light and more electrons. In this way, the gases of the ionosphere start to glow producing the spectacle that we know as the auroras, northern and southern.

Variations in colour are due to the type of gas particles that are colliding. The most common auroral color, a pale yellowish-green, is produced by oxygen molecules located about 60 miles above the earth. Rare, all-red auroras are produced by high-altitude oxygen, at heights of up to 200 miles. Nitrogen produces blue or purplish-red aurora.

In addition, auroras are not only fascinating to watch because of their varying colors, but also because of the many shapes that can be manifested. The shape completely depends on the fluctuations of the earth's magnetic field. A combination of the auroral arc and drapery or curtain type is one of the finest displays that can be seen. Collections of curtains evolve into soft billowy clouds which can brighten and fade in a matter of seconds. During some exceedingly bright displays, the aurora's shimmering glow has been reported to be as bright as the full moon. These fine displays occur at an altitude of from 65-70 miles, while the lower limit is 40 miles and the upper limit is 600 miles.

The location of auroras on Earth is strongly controlled by the Earth's magnetism. The auroras appear most frequently over the Earth's polar regions in what are known as the auroral ovals; in the northern hemisphere the auroral oval bulges that much further to the south, the stronger the solar wind is at any given moment. The oval normally extends over northern Finland and Scandinavia, the whole of Canada and the northern USA, Alaska and Siberia.

Auroras are most intense at times of intense magnetic storms caused by sunspot activity. Magnetic storms expand the auroral zone to locations more distant from the magnetic pole - such as Washington, London or Beijing - and also create bright auroras. If this happens on a clear night, residents in those cities can see an aurora, but it is a rare treat for them.

  1. Aurora Borealis/Australis - северни/южни сияния
  2. uncanny - таинствен, необичаен; свръхестествен
  3. awe-inspiring - вдъхващ страхопочитание/благоговение; величествен
  4. glow - светлина; (от)блясък; зарево
  5. ominously - зловещ, злокобен, заплашителен, застрашителен
  6. curtain (am. drapery) - завеса, перде
  7. fold - гънка; дипла
  8. luminous - сияен, лъчист, блестящ
  9. majestically - величествено, царствено
  10. multitude - множество (of)
  11. sword - меч; сабя, шпага, рапира
  12. to slash - разсичам; разцепвам, разрязвам
  13. flowing - който тече/се лее/приижда
  14. undulating - вълнист, вълнообразен;
  15. streamer - дълга лента, серпантина
  16. to fan - 1. вея си (с ветрило и пр.); 2. разпервам (се) като ветрило (out)
  17. the New/the Old Testament - Новият/Старият завет
  18. latitude - геогр. ширина
  19. to strike - 1. удрям (се), блъскам (се); 2. всявам (ужас, страх)
  20. omen - поличба, предзнаменование, знаменне
  21. outbreak of a war - избухване на война
  22. to awe - внушавам/вдъхвам страхопочитание/благоговение
  23. to abound - изобилствувам, пълен съм, богат съм
  24. to spellbind - 1. омагьосвам; 2. очаровам, омайвам; пленявам
  25. celestial - 1. небесен; the С. Empire Небесната империя (старо име на Китай); 2. божествен; божествено красив/добър; прекрасен; ангелски
  26. fungus (pl -gi; -guses) - 1. бот. гъба; гъбичка, плесен
  27. rotting - прогниващ, загниващ
  28. to summon - призовавам, извиквам, свиквам; повиквам
  29. dawn - зора, разсъмване
  30. whereby - чрез/посредством
  31. drift - 1. (бавно) течение; морско/речно течение; 2. преспа
  32. trail - следа, диря
  33. spark - искра
  34. maiden - девойка
  35. to whistle - свиря, подсвирвам
  36. to stare - гледам втренчено/вторачено; вглеждам се, взирам се (at, upon в)
  37. divine - божествен; небесен; 2. разг. прекрасен, прелестен, божествен
  38. walrus - морж
  39. skull - череп
  40. however - 1. както и да; 2. колкото и (да)
  41. enchanting - чаровен, очарователен, пленителен
  42. intriguing - любопитен, заинтригуващ
  43. indigenous - книж. туземен, местен
  44. fringe - 1. ресна, пискюл; 2. ръб, край
  45. to flow - преминавам, движа се като поток/масово,
  46. to deflect - отклонявам (се)
  47. to trap - хващам в капан (и прен.); впримчвам
  48. to collide - сблъсквам се, блъсвам се, удрям се (with с, в, о)
  49. violently - силно, яростно
  50. pale - 1. блед(ен); 2. светъл (за цвят)
  51. altitude - височина (и геом.); височина над морското равнище
  52. fluctuation - вариране, нестабилност; колебание
  53. to evolve - развивам (се); разгръщам (се)
  54. billowy - 1. издигащ се на талази; 2. вълнист. хълмист
  55. to fade - 1. избелявам; променям се (за цвят); 2. избледнявам, изчезвам
  56. exceedingly - крайно много, извънредно (много), прекомерно
  57. to shimmer - блещукам; трептя (за светлина)
  58. hemisphere - полукълбо, полусфера
  59. to bulge - 1. изпъквам, издувам се; деформирам се (out); 2. разг. набъбвам (за обем, брой);
  60. sunspot - слънчево петно
  61. treat - голямо удоволствие, наслада, неочаквана радост

 Stare or stair

Key terms:  

 aurora rapid and irregular displays of colorful lights in the night sky, created when the solar wind causes beams of electrons from the magnetosphere to strike the upper atmosphere, causing atoms and molecules to glow
 ion an atom or group of atoms carrying an electrical charge
 ionosphere part of the earth's atmosphere containing electrically-charged particles that reflect radio waves.
 magnetic field a region of space wherein a detectable magnetic force exists at every point
 plasma a state of matter in which all of the particles are electrically charged
 solar wind charged particles, mainly protons and electrons, that flow out from the sun and sweep out into space.

Answer these questions:  

  • What does Aurora look like?
  • Where do you have to be to see Auroras?
  • What causes the Aurora?
  • Why are they different colors?
  • How high up are the Auroras?
  • Is there a connection between sunspots on the Sun and large displays of Aurora?
  • What is the "solar wind" made of?
  • What did Auroras mean for indigenous people of the north?

L i b r a r y

The Sami and Lapland

Is 'Lapland' a country? Lapland is the name of a region in north Europe that belongs to Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia.
How does Lapland look like: There are many hills sheltering a rich fauna and flora. There is snow from November to May. Live webcams in Lapland »..
How is the weather like: Mild in summer with temperatures reaching 20°C and a wonderful snowland in winter with -30°C in the coldest months of the year.

Who are the Sami? The Sami are the indigenous people of the north of the Scandinavian peninsula.
Where do the Sami people live? Sami people live in the area stretching from northern Norway to the Kola peninsula in Russia. That region is popularly known as 'Lapland'.
What is the Sami population number? There are several statistics showing average figures of 25,000 Sami living in Norway, 17,000 in Sweden, 4,000 in Finland and 2,000 living in Russia.
Which are the main Sami towns? The Sami was traditionally a nomadic culture. You should look rather look for Sami communities. Some of the most important Sami communities are found near the towns of Rovaniemi and Inari (Finland) Kautokeino and Karasjok (Norway) and Kiruna (Sweden).
The economy of the Sami communities is mainly based on reindeer farming, fishing, hunting and handicraft.

What do the Sami people speak? There are 10 Sami languages spoken from Norway to Russia, although depending on the country where they live, they can speak Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish or Russian.
The most spoken of the Sami languages counts with some 30,000 speakers. The rest of the Sami languages count in general with less than 500 speakers. The Sami languages belong to the Finno-Ugric family and share the same origin than Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian.
The Sami language has some 400 words for reindeer, and one Sami word has become known worldwide: Tundra.
The Sami religious belief is animistic, believing that everything in nature from animals to minerals have a soul.

Source: Scandinavica.com

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