What Are the Northern Lights? (Time Lapse Video)


So, there’s this circulating time-lapse video of the northern lights, or the aurora borealis, at play in the northern UK sky, and you definitely need to see it. The time lapse video of the northern lights was made by photographer Maciej Winiarcyzk using more than two thousand digital photographs just over a month ago.

I have never had the privilege of seeing the northern lights in real life, but my sister lives in northern Canada and has told me about them. (She’s a pretty credible source: She even named her daughter Aurora.) After asking her, “What ARE the northern lights,” several times, I now understand the aurora borealis to be a visual effect of the collision of solar wind and magnetospheric charged particles with the thermosphere. Can you see why I had to ask what the northern lights were more than once? The northern lights are most spectacular near the North Pole and during spring and autumn equinoxes. (And, by the way, no. The northern lights are not Santa’s off-season hobby.) But the northern lights, if there are some geomagnetic storms a-brewin’, can be seen closer to home, too, visible occasionally as far south as Chicago or New York.

Anyway, this guy Winiarcyzk is an astronomy enthusiast who lives in Caithness, which is at the tippy top of Scotland. There’s isn’t much light pollution way up there, so it’s a good place for such a sky-minded person to live and enjoy his hobby. Wonderfully, with this time lapse video of the northern lights, we get to enjoy his hobby, too.

Take a look. Have you ever seen anything more lovely occurring in nature? You know, with all this solar wind, magnetospheric particles, thermospheres, and geomagnetic storms, it sure seems like there is a lot more going on in nature than we can readily sense.

So, more specifically, where can you see the northern lights? If you want to see the aurora borealis, a.k.a. the greatest light show on Earth, you might need to do some travelling. Some of the best places to see the northern lights are Iceland, Maine, Canada, Greenland, Russia, and Scandinavia. There are northern lights cruises you can take: That might be the best way to see the aurora borealis in all its majesty. However, I wouldn’t count on seeing a show as intense as the one Winiarcyzk has given us. What he captured represents the peak of the 11 year solar cycle. It might be a while before mother nature can drum up geomagnetic madness of this intensity again.

Have YOU ever seen the northern lights? The video represents the spectacle well, but what is the experience of watching them like? Leave a comment, and let me live vicariously through you!

Tom Sowders

After majoring in creative writing at NC State, I worked in the home remodeling industry. Then, I attended graduate school for a really long time and gained experience as a writer and writing instructor. I live in the Raleigh-Durham area with my wife and baby boy, and you can find me around the Triangle anywhere there's good music and/or NC-style BBQ.