If you've watched "Cosmos," you probably have at least a loose grasp on what causes the northern lights. And when you realize how these mind-blowing displays are sparked by solar storms — not mere magic — it makes videos like the one above even more mesmerizing to see.
That aurora video, by the way, is worth a look even if you missed "Cosmos." It's the time-lapse debut of San Francisco photographer Alexis Coram, but its imagery and editing betray no hint of her newness to the form. It squeezes an impressive array of aurora footage into less than three minutes, all filmed during an Alaska vacation Coram took in February.
"There are some things in this world that everyone deserves to experience with their own eyes," Coram writes on Vimeo. "I headed to Alaska in February with the hope of catching a glimpse of the Northern Lights with mine. That glimpse turned into an extravaganza ... a party in the sky, and I was an onlooker, a face in the crowd ... awestruck, mesmerized, feeling like the luckiest girl in the world."
Coram was lucky to see such a show, but luck was only part of it. Thanks to humanity's scientific grasp of the solar cycle and geomagnetism, she was privy to information that helped her improve her odds of seeing the northern lights. Whereas ancient people had to speculate about such phenomena, we're now awash in knowledge about the natural world. We know, for example, the sun undergoes 11-year cycles that dictate aurora activity on Earth. The sun is now near the end of its latest solar maximum, but February was a particularly active month for solar flares — and for the northern lights.
"Most aurorae are green, and you can sometimes catch some red and even pink and purple if conditions are right," Bad Astronomy writer Phil Plait notes in a post on Coram's video. "She caught all that, plus the mesmerizing roiling and curling of the lights as the subatomic particles blasted from the sun shake the Earth's magnetic field, sliding down them and slamming into our atmosphere."
Science may have taught us what causes these ethereal lights, and how best to see them, but there's no reason to think we've reached the limits of auroral enlightenment. In fact, scientists are now looking for an even more useful lesson shimmering somewhere inside the northern lights: A new study suggests they might be able to help us harness the sun's priceless power of nuclear fusion.