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When the (Northern) Lights Go Out

When the light dims outside we know it’s fixing to be nightfall. When they dim in the theatre, we’re supposed to get quiet. But happens when the Northern Lights dim? Scientists are trying to find that out right now.

The Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, are brilliant lights and fireballs that dance in the skies around the North Pole. Their sister lights to the south, the Aurora Australis, entertain the southern hemisphere. Their colors range from pinks and purples (near the horizon) to greens and blues (mid-sky) and ambers and reds in the highest parts of the atmosphere.

Once thought to be a resting place for the dead, lights off a distant ocean or even a school of spectacular herring (fish) with the moonlight dancing off their scales, we now know that the auroras are the reaction of Earth’s atmosphere to the energy and matter that scatter from the Sun. The reaction of these solar cast-aways mixing with the oxygen and nitrogen of our planet make the magical show that has been enjoyed by people since before recorded history.

The auroras run in an 11-year cycle, dimming in the eleventh year and growing brighter over the next decade. In 1982, the Lights hit their slump. They have not returned to full brightness since, although more than 25 years have passed. When will this end?

"Only in the past half a year have we seen more activity,” researcher Noora Partamies told AFP, “but we don't really know whether we're coming out of this minimum."

The Northern Lights are usually easily seen in countries in the far northern hemisphere like Sweden, Finland, Lapland, Norway and northern regions of Russia and Canada. During years with high levels of solar activity and solar flares, however, they have been seen as far south as Florida. They are also clearly visible from space satellites and shuttles orbiting the planet.

No reports have been made about the state of the Aurora Australis, but they are less visible, being seen only from Antarctica and some points in South America and Australia.

Countries in the north have set up entire industries around the Aurora Borealis. Norway, Sweden, Finland, Canada and Romania all boast the best ice hotels around. These temporary hotels, constructed entirely of ice, are rebuilt every year by teams of architects, sculptors and other artists who carve, chip and stack ice blocks to make everything from rooms to beds and tables to cups. They specialize in local foods, dog sledding, cross-country skiing and trips to see the Aurora.

While scientist try to puzzle out the mystery of why the Lights to the north are weakened and towns that thrive on the ice hotel industry watch and wait, we look to the Sun, hoping for its solar trash to crash … and create beauty on the Earth again.



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