What are the Northern Lights? - Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Dana Sparkman
The northern lights are a natural, colorful light display that can be seen near the polar regions of the earth. What causes this spectacular green, yellow, blue, and red light show in the night sky?

What Are the Northern Lights?

What if you were camping in the backyard and you looked up in the night sky and saw sweeping waves of yellow, pink, and green lights? What would you think they are? If you live in the northern part of the globe, you might have seen this; it is called aurora borealis, or the northern lights.

The northern lights are brightly colored waves of light that are seen in the evening sky near the magnetic poles of the earth. In the northern hemisphere, they are called aurora borealis, and in the southern hemisphere, they are called aurora australis. Although these waves of light can be many colors, they are most often red, yellow, green, blue, or purple.

The northern lights in Alaska
picture of northern lights

What Causes the Northern Lights?

Throughout the years, people have made up myths, or stories to explain something that occurs in nature, like the northern lights. Some myths said that the northern lights were dancing spirits of people who had died or spirits of animals that had been killed on a hunt. Another myth said that the lights were caused by a magical fox who used his tail to spray snow up into the sky, which made the light display.

Actually, the northern lights are neither of those things. They are caused by the sun, which sometimes has a strong solar wind. This solar wind interacts with gas particles in the air far above the earth. Surrounding the earth is its atmosphere, a mixture of gas particles around the entire planet. These gases - mainly nitrogen, oxygen, and hydrogen - make up the air we breathe.

Sometimes, there are giant storms on the sun. During these storms, the sun shoots solar particles through space. As these charged particles go near the earth, they enter the earth's atmosphere. The charged particles sent out by the sun collide with the gas particles that make up the earth's atmosphere. When these collisions happen, it causes the gas particles in the earth's atmosphere to light up. This is what causes the northern lights.

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