Aurora : The Northern Lights in Mythology, History and Science

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The indigenous peoples of America and Canada have traditions related to the auroras. According to regional mythology, in Scandinavia, the Norse god of winter Ullr was said to have produced the Aurora Borealis to illuminate the longest nights of the year. One myth among the caribou hunter Dene people is that reindeer originated in the Aurora Borealis. Five examples of multiple simultaneous auroral observations from East Asia Korea, Japan, China have been identified in the last 2, years, occurring on the nights of January 31, ; October 6, ; July 30, ; March 8, ; and March 2, An important classical Roman report comes from Pliny the Elder, who wrote of the aurora in 77 CE, calling the lights a "chasma" and describing it as a "yawning" of the night sky, accompanied by something that looked like blood and fire falling to earth.

These poetic descriptions of the phenomenon belie the astrophysical origin of the aurora borealis and its southern twin, the aurora australis. David P. Stern and Mauricio Peredo. The Exploration of the Earth's Magnetosphere. The next scientific fact that is important in this investigation is that the aurora is not visible all over the polar region - instead, by keeping tabs on how often aurora was seen in various locations, scientists discovered that the aurora actually occurred in a mile radius ring or oval centered around not the North Pole or South Pole, but rather the geomagnetic pole.

Another surprising fact is the geomagnetic pole moves!! Today, the geomagnetic North Pole is moving approximately northwest at 40 km per year. The Earth is not a solid sphere. Deep at the center of the earth is the planet's core, thought to be composed of an iron alloy. Some regions of the core are molten, while in others the gradual cooling of the planet over millenia has allowed some iron to solidify out of the liquid alloy. Lighter portions of the alloy rise, heavier portions sink, which causes a roiling within the core similar to that in a pan of boiling water.

As the Earth rotates, Coriolis forces twist and shear these currents in the core, and the movement and rotation ultimately results in the Earth's electrical and magnetic fields, with the whole planet acting as a dynamo. Because the Earth is not a perfect sphere, and various regions of the planet's interior are likewise irregular, the currents in the core are unstable, which causes the movement in the geomagnetic pole. Determining the historical movements of the geomagnetic pole is part of the science of archaeomagnetism.

It was discovered that clay, when heated to a high temperature, acquires magnetism that parallels the magnetic field of the Earth. By testing this magnetism in objects which can also be dated by other methods, one may discern the direction of the geomagnetic pole at the date the clay item was last heated. As scientists have collected large numbers of data points in this way, a map has been developed showing the past peregrinations of the geomagnetic pole. Archaeomagnetic records show that the geomagnetic pole, and thus the auroral oval, moved away from Scandinavia and towards first northern Canada then Siberia during the Viking Age.

Movement of the auroral oval and the geomagnetic pole from AD to AD.

What Is the Classical Origin of the Aurora Borealis?

Despite the fact that the most frequent zone of auroral displays was moving away from Scandinavia, it is well-known that sunspot activity increases the intensity and range of the aurora, occasionally making them visible far to the south, even in Italy or southern Europe, as in when Galileo Galilei originally coined the term aurora borealis to describe what he thought resembled an early sunrise appearing in the north.

Since sunspots increase the energy of the solar wind, the auroras are especially vivid during solar storms and high periods of sunspot activity. However, there are good indications from sun-spot observations recorded back for millenia by Chinese observers that there may have been very few sunspots during the Viking Age ca.

We know that there have been times in history when the aurorae virtually disappeared due to lack of sunspot activity. For example:. The third factor in determining Viking Age opportunities to view the aurora is the consideration that the Northern Lights are visible only in the winter.

The northern light in history

Although specialized satellite imaging has clearly shown that auroral activity happens in the daytime as well as at night, for a human observer the aurora must have the darkness of night to be be visible. In the polar regions and in Scandinavia, summer has very long days, and near midsummer the sky is never actually dark. In the winter, the reverse is true and northerners experience long dark hours of the winter night.

One might think this would provide ideal aurora-watching weather, but the cold of northern winters, combined with Norse beliefs about elf-rides and the walking dead being especially prevalent menances near midwinter, may have discouraged Viking Age people from going out to marvel at any celestial lightshows that may have occurred. Taken together, these facts tend to indicate that the Vikings ca. Still, as Mistress Brynhildr points out, "Viking-Age Icelanders certainly saw geysers and steam and hot springs all the time, but they are barely mentioned in the sagas.

So 'not being mentioned' doesn't have to mean 'not present'". Aurora Photographs by Jan Curtis. The Aurora Page. An Icelandic-English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon. Hollander, Lee M. Poetic Edda. Austin: University of Texas Press. Buy this book today! Larrington, Carolyne, trans. The Poetic Edda. World's Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Larson, Laurence Marcellus, trans. New York: Twayne Publishers.

Harald Falck Ytter - Aurora - Floris Books

Email correspondence dated 4 March regarding the aurorae. Sturluson, Snorri. The Prose Edda. Anthony Faulkes.

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What is an aurora? - Michael Molina

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  1. The Aurora Borealis and the Vikings;
  2. ISBN 13: 9780863150203.
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