The mystery of the northern lights and its inspiration on Scouting

Witnessing the mystical, colorful northern lights tops many people’s bucket lists, usually because it’s assumed the only place to see the natural phenomena is near the Arctic Circle. Another assumption is that the time to see them is just during the winter months.

And while it’s true you have a better chance of seeing the aurora borealis the closer you get to the North Pole and that the prime viewing period is in the winter when nights are longer, to quote Maxwell Smart, would you believe…

…that in September 1859, a solar storm so intense hit the earth that it lit up the sky in the Northeast U.S. and the Rocky Mountains so people there could sit outside and read their newspapers after midnight? The celestial lights were also seen as far south as Hawaii and Cuba.

…that a storm of similar power missed us in 2012?

…that the northern lights were seen in the southern states of Arkansas, Alabama and Georgia in October 2011?

…that the aurora borealis could be seen from September through March on a clear, dark night?

…that the northern lights occasionally dance across the skies over the continental U.S. states, like Maine, Idaho, Michigan and Minnesota?

Well, it’s all true.

Here’s an amazing viewing of the northern lights a few years ago from LaTourell’s wilderness trip outfitters on Moose Lake, just down the road from the BSA Northern Tier High Adventure Base in Ely, Minnesota.

Scouting and the lights

The northern lights have inspired the Boy Scouts of America. Of the more than 1,700 BSA districts, four are named after the aurora borealis. Northern Lights districts are in the Northern Star Council in St. Paul, Minn.; the Heart of America Council based in Kansas City, Mo.; the Longhouse Council in Syracuse, N.Y., and the Circle Ten Council in Dallas, Texas.

Northern Star’s Northern Lights district gives out an Aurora Borealis Award to people who have served youth, either in Scouting or other areas.

BSA’s Northern Lights Council encompasses four states: North Dakota, Montana, South Dakota and Minnesota.

And Alaska’s Midnight Sun Council offers a Northern Lights High Adventure program.

The skinny on the skies

The northern lights’ enchanting trip over our planet isn’t as peaceful as it looks from the ground.

Solar winds and giant eruptions of plasma and charged particles emitted from the Sun clash with particles in the Earth’s atmosphere, causing luminous reactions. The colors depend on which molecules (primarily nitrogen and oxygen) are reacting with the solar particles. Auroras around both the North and South Pole can shine in shades of red, green, blue, yellow and pink. The movement of the northern lights corresponds with the motion of particles and the magnetic field lines.

Like the weather, it’s difficult to determine where and when the northern lights will appear. However, researchers with the National Weather Service’s Space Weather Prediction Center have developed an hourly forecast map for the lights at both poles.

Scientists also have a good idea which years might produce more sunspot activity, which in turn might result in more solar stuff heading our way. The Sun cycles in about 11 years of increased sunspots; the last major peak was in 2014. Flares usually originate near sunspots and can hurdle solar particles toward Earth.

By the way, if you’re looking skyward this week, be sure to check out the Geminid meteor shower, which is supposed to peak this Wednesday night. As many as 120 meteors can be seen in an hour.

Have you seen the aurora borealis during a Scouting campout? Share your story in the comments below.

About Michael Freeman 428 Articles
Michael Freeman, an Eagle Scout, is an associate editor of Scout Life and Scouting magazines.