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9 April, 2003

Northern Lights

Last evening I stayed up to 2:00 AM in hopes of catching a glimpse of the famed Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights. The sky was crystal clear and the air a crispy zero degrees F with a slight hint of a northern breeze.

As I faced Big Diomede Island, Russia I stood in awe of the quilt of bright stars and moon against the thick velvety black sky. The snow and ice seemed to have a glow about them and even though it was two in the morning I could still clearly across the ice.

The high-pitched yelp of an Arctic fox diverted my attention briefly northward and I caught my first glimpse of the lights. A huge faded greenish curtain of light appeared above the northern half of Big Diomede and stretched eastward across the starry night. It looked like a giant sheer ribbon rippling in a gentle breeze to the north until it disappeared. More light ribbons, curtains, waves and ripples appeared, some one at a time others in groups. Most slowly meandered northward while a few seemed to break up into individual threads, like rays of sunlight through a cloud. The whole event lasted only s few seconds.

A noise from behind me brought me back to the reality that I did not have my coat on and was actually quite cold. I Turned to make my way back in when another fox came around the corner. After a brief 10-second stare down, of which I won, I reached for my camera but the creature disappeared into the shadows of the rocks. Oh well, I will get this camera shy mammal on film later.

What Are The Northern Lights?

For centuries humans have watched in awe the colorfully hypnotic dancing display of the Northern Lights much as I did this past evening. Even today scientists are still researching this amazing natural phenomenon.

The Ancient Romans named the light show Aurora Borealis. The name Aurora, after the goddess of Dawn and Boreas, named after the Greek god of the north wind. And throughout human history individuals have tried to explain the cause of the lights as everything from heavenly fires and cosmic rain to meteorite dust to dancing spirits.

In reality the lights are caused mainly by the electricity contained in solar winds and by the magnetism found at the North and South Poles. (At the South Pole the lights are called Aurora Australis) Itís a lot more scientific than that but I am only here for 11 more days.

The lights can stretch across the sky for thousands of miles and be as high as 50 to 600 miles. It is estimated, by some scientists, that the electrical energy produced by the light show in one night contains about three times the electrical energy used by the entire United States in one whole year.

Whatever the scientific explanation of these winter rainbows they are no doubt fascinating and awe inspiring to watch.

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