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John Wheeler, Published March 11 2012

Weather Talk: Storms on sun can boost northern lights’ visibility

The northern lights have been seen more regularly in recent months, causing many people to wonder what they are and why they are occurring.

Northern lights are photons (particles of light) emitted when gasses in the outer atmosphere are bombarded with high-energy particles from the sun. The process is very similar to what happens in an electrical neon sign. Earth’s magnetic field tends to concentrate these particles near the magnetic poles, which is why we usually see them in the northern sky.

Occasionally, following storms on the surface of the sun, there will be a terrific increase in the number of these particles causing northern lights to be visible much farther south. The different colors can be attributed to different gasses.

Northern lights are usually rather pale and are best viewed away from city lights.


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