Northern Lights

Purple and green northern lights hang like a curtain in the night sky over two wooden shacks in Nome
Electrons colliding with oxygen atoms? Or spirits playing soccer with walrus skulls in the heavens? The northern lights dance in the skies over Nome.

NPS Photo - Andrea Willingham


The Northern Lights

Also known as the aurora borealis, the northern lights are a breathtaking spectacle that can be witnessed from Bering Land Bridge National Preserve. To better understand this phenomenon, imagine you're riding the waves of the Northern Lights starting at the sun, the center of our solar system. Here on this hostile orb of fiery gases, solar winds stream out at 900,000 miles per hour! Even at this breakneck speed, it takes 40 hours for the wind to reach our own planet.

Once it gets close, the solar wind follows the earth's magnetic lines and swoops into the magnetosphere, which is a shield of highly charged electrical and magnetic fields around the planet. Some of the wind gets through this shield and flies into our upper atmosphere. Here it meets oxygen and nitrogen atoms, which affects the colors that are pronounced in the lights that you see in the aurora. These magnetic and electrical forces are continually shifting and reacting to one another, causing the northern lights to look as if they're flowing or dancing in the sky. During periods of high sunspot activity, the northern lights will look even more spectacular and range farther than usual. Sunspots occur on an 11-year cycle and - good news for us -- between 2011 and 2012 we are currently at the peak of the cycle, so viewing of the aurora borealis should be exceptional.

The northern lights hold various meanings to Alaska Native culture. Many traditions advise against whistling when the northern lights are out, for fear they will come down and carry the whistler away; some believe the lights to be dancing human or animal spirits. Labrador folklore says they are torches lit by the dead who are playing football with a walrus skull in the heavens. The Inuit of Point Barrow believed them to be evil and carried knives for protection, though the Koyukuk of northwest Alaska believed they were good, and hoped to attract them by banging pots and pans. Regardless of the beliefs surrounding this ethereal wonder, most can agree that the northern lights are an unforgettable sight to behold.

Last updated: April 14, 2015

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Nome, AK 99762


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