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Aurora Australis from space February 28, 2014

Posted by Jenny in Meteorology, nature.
Tags: , , , ,
Aurora Australis seen from the International Space Station.

Aurora Australis seen from the International Space Station.

I came across these photos on Wikimedia Commons. They are copyright-free images.  The one above was taken during a geomagnetic storm caused by a “coronal mass ejection from the sun,” May 24, 2010. The description reads:

Auroras happen when ions in the solar wind collide with atoms of oxygen and nitrogen in the upper atmosphere. The atoms are excited by these collisions, and they typically emit light as they return to their original energy level…. Auroras are a spectacular sign that our planet is electrically and magnetically connected to the Sun…. The pressure and magnetic energy of the solar plasma stretches and twists the magnetic field of Earth like rubber bands, particularly in the tail on the night side. This energizes the particles trapped in our magnetic field; that energy is released suddenly as the field lines snap the particles down the field lines toward the north and south magnetic poles. —Captions to photos written by the ISS Expedition 23 crew and Michael Carlowicz.

Southern Lights

Southern Lights

Poets have tried to capture the magic and mystery of the Northern and Southern Lights. It’s one of those topics that’s too dazzling to write about. The helpless poet is reduced to shopworn adjectives of grandiosity that fall far short of the subject. Herman Melville, for instance, wrote a clunker of a poem on the topic even though he was a great writer.

The description quoted from above included few lines from a poem by Robert Service titled “Ballad of the Northern Lights”: And the skies of the night were alive with light, with a throbbing, thrilling flame; Amber and rose and violet, opal and gold it came. It swept the sky like a giant scythe, it quivered back to a wedge; Argently bright, it cleft the night with a wavy golden edge.

That’s pretty good. The trick to the poem is that it’s about an exhausted, ruined man come back from the Alaska goldfields. He has no gold in his pockets, only the memory of the wavering gold of the Northern Lights. He and his two pals were “the discards of the pack,” and “the gold lust crazed us all.” He tells his story to a stranger as he waits outside a saloon, begging for a handout.

His bitter story gives a bite to his description of the wonders of the sky, and leaves me to think about how gazing at the sky can offer the deepest answers by way of the dazzling realities that dwell just over our heads.

Aurora from space.

Aurora from space.


1. T E Stazyk - February 28, 2014

Amazing–and scary!

Jenny - February 28, 2014

Perhaps since you reside in NZ you find these images more disturbing than those of us do in the northern hemisphere! But I gather that viewings of the Southern Lights are rare from those parts. You have to be at the very southernmost latitudes, in places with very dark skies—which means Antarctica is really the best viewing spot.

T E Stazyk - March 1, 2014

Actually you can see them from the very bottom of NZ and I know some people who claim to have seen them. Every time I’ve been far enough south it’s been too cloudy.

I wouldn’t say I found the images disturbing. I meant good scary–like overwhelmed by our insignificance, if that makes sense.

2. Jenny - March 1, 2014

Yes, that does make sense. It’s hard to come up with a good way to suggest that feeling, the kind that’s suggested by an astronomer’s view of the galaxies or by looking into the depths of the Grand Canyon. But I think I know what you mean.

3. Kent Hackendy - March 1, 2014

Very Beautiful images. The Sun is capable of such great beauty – and great destruction, as well. Sometimes I think of how vulnerable we are to an EMP from our life giving orb that could send us back to the 19th century in a second. (I try not to contemplate the implications of that very often.)

Jenny - March 1, 2014

I understand why various peoples throughout history have worshiped the sun. I’m also glad it’s 93 million miles away!

4. Brian Reed - March 3, 2014


“It swept the sky like a giant scythe, it quivered back to a wedge”

Agrarian labor imagery always sounds instantly poetic in a way that, say, office work imagery never will. But I wonder if there is something lost reading it now from the days when it was an everyday sight to everyone. Where do you ever see a quivering scythe anymore? I imagine it looks something like those videos I’ve seen of auroras…

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