How To Look At An Aurora

© Copyright 2021 Anjali Jaikarran, Ryerson University.

An aurora borealis in Astotin Lake, Alberta, Canada.
Fig. 1. Serey Kim; [An aurora borealis in Astotin Lake, Alberta, Canada]; Unsplash, 18 October 2019,; photograph.
The world we live in is full of wonders— wonders that leave us in awe of nature’s capabilities. The softness of sunrises and sunsets as they signal the beginning and end of each day, the unique crystalline design of a single snowflakeonly one of its kind ever floating from the sky, even heavy rains nourish the earth after their terrible assault. An aurora is one such wonder, a visual phenomenon that treats night skies like an empty canvas, painting them with its vibrant colours. Auroras are not a mundane sight, they are unequivocally special; to see an aurora is one of those things you have to do before you die.

 The source of an aurora’s otherworldly glow stems from rapidly moving electrons from the magnetosphere, the area in space that is controlled by our planet’s magnetic field, which collide with nitrogen and oxygen molecules from the Earth’s upper atmosphere. It is almost poetic that such an ethereal sight is created by an unseeing force— almost like magic. And maybe it is magic— a doorway or curtain that separates us from another world— an alternate universe where everything is opposite, or a pastoral realm filled with things we can only conjure in fairytales. Auroras are found near the Earth’s poles, north and south; however, our focus will be on the aurora borealis, otherwise known as the northern lights. The image seen above (Fig. 1.) was taken in Alberta, Canada. The northwestern areas of Canada are the most recommended spots to view this celestial lights display, along with the southernmost parts of Greenland and Iceland, and the northern coast of Siberia. These places are likely revered as viewing spots as they are most susceptible to darkness during their winters, and free of intense light pollution which makes seeing them much more breathtaking.

Auroras come alive in darkness and near isolation. Their colours streak across the darkened sky, reminding me very much of the brilliant shades of coloured powders used during Holi, the Hindu festival which marks the coming of spring and the banishment of darkness and evil. However, auroras do not banish the darkness that envelopes the sky at night— rather, coexisting with it— allowing both visual wonders to shine— to glow— to irrevocably capture the attention of the viewer. The lights do not diminish the shimmer of the stars nor do the stars distract from the aurora’s ethereal glow— instead, you take it in slowly, you absorb every inch of the sky— until the stillness encompasses you, and all you can do is watch in silence. 

The colours of an aurora are reminiscent of those on a painter’s palette, blending seamlessly into one another. An aurora’s brilliant colours are caused by how rapidly electrons collide with either oxygen or nitrogen particles. For example, the vivid shade of blue-green, one could even call it turquoise, tinging the night sky in Fig. 1., is caused by electrons colliding with nitrogen which creates blue light. While the soft, majestic shade of purple-pink that crests along the horizon emerges when green-yellow and red light (caused by electrons colliding with oxygen) mixes with blue light. These combinations can also create white light. 

Auroras do not have a definite purpose or utility, they just exist— a gift from nature. I would like to think that auroras are the moments that the heavens have the urge to paint— to release creativity into the world— to create something beautiful for the insignificant, clueless humans that live beneath. 


Works Cited

Elkins, James. How to Use Your Eyes. Routledge, 2000.

Gaskill, Melissa. “10 Bright Facts About the Northern Lights.” Mental Floss, 12 February 2016, Accessed 7 February 2021.

Kim, Serey. [An aurora borealis in Astotin Lake, Alberta, Canada] Unsplash, 18 October 2019, Accessed 6 February 2021. 

“Northern Lights.” Northern Lights Centre, Accessed 8 February 2021.

Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.