May I please invite you to join me in the presence of one of the great natural phenomena and spectacles of our world.
Not only is it enthralling to witness and scientifically crucial, but it’s quite emotionally moving as well.
Why? Because what’s before me is a physical manifestation of one of the primary, but generally invisible, features of Earth that make life possible. It’s mostly seen in the far northern and far southern climes, but the force is everywhere and it protects our atmosphere and us from the parched fate of a planet like Mars.
I’m speaking, of course, of the northern lights, the Aurora Borealis, and the planet’s magnetic fields that help turn on the lights.
My vantage point is the far northern tip of Norway, inside the Arctic Circle. It’s stingingly cold in the silent woods, frozen still for the long, dark winter, and it’s always an unpredictable gift when the lights show up.
But they‘re out tonight, dancing in bright green and sometimes gold-tinged arches and spotlights and twirling pinwheels across the northerly sky. Sometimes the horizon glows green, sometimes the whole sky fills with vivid green streaks.
It can all seem quite other-worldly. But the lights, of course, are entirely the result of natural forces.
It has been known for some time that the lights are caused by reactions between the high-energy particles of solar flares colliding in the upper regions of our atmosphere and then descending along the lines of the planet’s magnetic fields. Green lights tell of oxygen being struck at a certain altitude, red or blue of nitrogen.
But the patterns — sometimes broad, sometimes spectral, sometimes curled and sometimes columnar — are the result of the magnetic field that surrounds the planet. The energy travels along the many lines of that field, and lights them up to make our magnetic blanket visible.
Such a protective magnetic field is viewed as essential for life on a planet, be it in our solar system or beyond.
But a magnetic field does not a habitable planet make.… Read more