Wonders of the Night Sky

Northern lights over North Twin Lake in Minnesota

Certain Ojibwe traditions tell us when we leave this earth, we will dance through the doorway to the next world in spirit form. Our spirit will find those of our ancestors, and we will rejoice and dance in the sky. The people of the world will see the dancing in the sky and call it Waawaate, the Northern Lights.

The Northern Lights, which are also known as the Aurora Borealis, is a phenomenon known throughout the northern skies. A similar occurrence in the southern hemisphere is known as the Aurora Australis. The auroras have been the subject of lore of Native Americans and other cultures throughout time.

Stories about the auroras range from the Roman belief the lights were the goddess of dawn to medieval times when they were thought to be a harbinger of famine, to a number of Native American beliefs, including the lights being omens of war or dancing spirits or great hunters and fishermen.

These lights, which can be seen from the Chippewa National Forest in winter and spring, have a scientific explanation.

According to the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Geophysical Institute, the northern lights are the result of the impact between gaseous particles in the Earth's atmosphere with charged particles released from the sun's atmosphere. Variations in color are due to the type of gas particles that are colliding. The most common auroral color, a pale yellowish-green, is produced by oxygen molecules located about 60 miles above the earth. Rare, all-red auroras are produced by high-altitude oxygen, at heights of up to 200 miles. Nitrogen produces blue or purplish-red aurora.

In planning an aurora-viewing trip, it’s also important to have clear skies, so between December and April, coinciding with the new moon is optimal. Active periods are typically about 30 minutes long, and occur every two hours, if the activity is high. The aurora is a sporadic phenomenon, occurring randomly for short periods or perhaps not at all. A current aurora forecast can be found at: http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/products/aurora-30-minute-forecast

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