Rare Taste of Ethereal Beauty 


If you are lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, the night sky can reveal mesmerizing displays of dancing lights known as auroras, captivating observers with their ethereal beauty.  And last weekend, many lucky residents of Cape Ann got a rare taste of that ethereal beauty.

Auroras, such as the aurora borealis (known commonly as the Northern Lights) and aurora australis (Southern Lights), are predominantly seen in high-latitude regions due to unique interactions between solar radiation and the Earth.

Auroras are formed by disturbances in Earth’s magnetosphere caused by solar wind. Such disturbances create luminous displays of light as charged particles clash dramatically with atmospheric gasses.  These chemical interactions are what ultimately produce the dynamic shapes and colors that bound across our skies, ranging from green and red hues, coming from oxygen to blue and purple shades, coming from nitrogen, depending on the atmospheric conditions and altitude.

While auroras are typically only visible in the regions near the Arctic and Antarctic Circles, intense geomagnetic storms can extend their visibility to lower latitudes on rare occasions. 

This past weekend, actually, was one such occasion.  There was a particularly potent solar storm which generated winds so strong they allowed the aurora borealis to be seen as far south as Florida, and the photography of auroras seen across the North Shore was absolutely stunning. 

Locals, many of whom had never before seen an aurora in their whole life, were able to watch on their cameras as bright greens and pinks rippled over the horizon. Unfortunately, most of the light show was not visible to the naked eye, but camera phones can pick up a surprisingly impressive amount of light, so most people were still able to get a great view (with some technological assistance).

Centuries of civilizations have marveled at auroras, weaving folklore and mythology around these celestial spectacles.  

Early Chinese legends portrayed auroras as battles between mythical dragons, while the Algonquin and Inuit tribes in North America saw them as spiritual manifestations, representing the spirits of ancestors or celestial games played by the departed. It’s delightful to think that now, even those of us who might not otherwise get a chance to see the natural wonder of the auroras can be a part of this ancient tradition and stand witness to such a historic and beautiful event.

Auroras remain a captivating subject for scientists and sky watchers alike.  The best viewing conditions for auroras are in the auroral zones near the poles, where they are most frequent and vibrant.  Solar activity cycles influence aurora brightness and frequency, with the next solar maximum expected in 2025, promising enhanced auroral displays next year. 

If we’re lucky, perhaps the North Shore will catch another glimpse of the aurora borealis in the future, but October of 2003 was the last time we saw a solar storm of this magnitude, so it seems we might have to make the excitement of this past weekend last at least a couple more decades.