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Northern Lights

Northern LightsBy Les Besser

Lists of the Natural Wonders of the World compete to name favorites, but every single list includes the Northern Lights, also called Aurora Borealis. The latter name comes from two ancient Greek gods: Aurora, the goddess of the dawn and Boreas, the god of the north wind.

Ancient cultures thought the lights were special, too. The Chinese thought they resulted from good and evil dragons fighting. The Finns believed they were magical plumes of water from giant whales, while Greenlanders considered the eerie, shifting lights to be the souls of dead children. More cheerfully, the Cree Indians saw them as their ancestors celebrating in heaven.

Modern science has provided a less dramatic story. In reality, the Northern Lights emerge when particles emitted from the sun collide with the upper atmosphere of the Earth. The resulting solar winds are bent by Earth’s magnetic field toward the magnetic poles. These winds collide with atmospheric particles in their path and gain electrical charge, producing visible light. Similar sightings, named Southern Lights or Aurora Australis, occur near the Southern magnetic pole.

Susan and I had the good fortune to witness this magnificent phenomenon in one of the Greenland fjords during our recent North Atlantic cruise. Even though we had to crawl out of bed in the middle of the night and march to the top deck—only to wait for an hour in the cold wind—it was well worth the inconvenience. The display was breathtaking, and our “Bucket List” has been shortened.

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