Nature's amazing light show gives New Year's Eve fireworks a run for the money

December 30, 2014, 3:13 p.m.
Camping in the north with the northern lights (Aurora Borealis) overhead
Photo: Stephen Mcsweeny/Shutterstock

While fireworks may have us staring up in awe of the colors and sparkles bursting across the sky, nature has her own light show that's a more subtle but no-less-spectacular display. This show is called an aurora, a flowing ribbon of colorful light that streams through the skies in the Arctic and Antarctic regions of the globe.

But what causes an aurora? How Stuff Works explains it succinctly:

"The auroras, both surrounding the north magnetic pole (aurora borealis) and south magnetic pole (aurora australis) occur when highly charged electrons from the solar wind interact with elements in the earth's atmosphere. Solar winds stream away from the sun at speeds of about 1 million miles per hour. When they reach the earth, some 40 hours after leaving the sun, they follow the lines of magnetic force generated by the earth's core and flow through the magnetosphere, a teardrop-shaped area of highly charged electrical and magnetic fields. As the electrons enter the earth's upper atmosphere, they will encounter atoms of oxygen and nitrogen at altitudes from 20 to 200 miles above the earth's surface. The color of the aurora depends on which atom is struck, and the altitude of the meeting."

Gun powder and chemicals may create a momentarily beautiful sight in the sky. But when you ponder the light that's created from wind traveling from the sun to our atmosphere where particles dance with each other to create a colorful, glimmering night sky, fireworks simply don't hold a candle to an aurora.

Related on MNN: 29 photos that celebrate camping with dogs