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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Aurorae, Bright and Muted

By Phil Plait

I love a good coincidence.

I got two emails within a few hours of each other, both from photographers, both linking to lovely videos they created of aurorae, the northern lights. Both are full of wonder and awe for these phenomena, the laws of quantum physics, electromagnetism, and solar hydrodynamics writ large across our sky.

But the two videos convey very different ideas about the lights.

First, here is the time-lapse done by “the Film Artist,” who spent over a week in Iceland with Henry Jun Wah Lee to create this gorgeous montage:

Breathtaking, isn’t it? I especially like the shot at about 3:30 when the clouds are lit green by the aurora above. Mind you, those clouds were a few kilometers in altitude, but the aurorae shine about 100 kilometers above our heads.

I’ll note he added in the sounds; aurorae don’t make noise like thunder. The colors are gripping, though, with vivid greens, reds, and purples …

Which brings us to the second video I was sent, by Phil Hart (whose work I’ve featured on the blog before several times). Hart discovered the aurora paintings of Harald Moltke, an artist who, at the turn of the 20th century, traveled to northern regions as part of a scientific expedition to paint the aurora as accurately as possible. I’ve seen Moltke’s paintings and always wondered why they were muted compared with photos, but of course the camera gathers light, intensifying colors. By eye, aurorae tend not to be so intensely hued.

Hart was inspired to recreate what aurorae really look like using his own work and produced this interesting video:

Different, isn’t it? He talks about how he made the video on his own blog, and it’s an interesting read.

If you want to learn more about the aurorae—how they form, why they are colored so, and how they move—I suggest you read my aurora FAQ.

And still, to this day, I have not yet seen an aurora. Seeing the Film Artist’s video of Iceland, though, makes me think I know a good place to go to see them …

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