WTF Fun Fact 13294 – Sounds of the Northern Lights

The Northern Lights, also referred to as aurora borealis, are a natural phenomenon that has long stunned humans and sparked imaginative explanations. The phenomenon occurs when charged particles from the sun collide with the Earth’s magnetic field. This causes the eerie yet beautiful display of light that most of us will only see pictures of. But did you know that scientists have long been obsessed with the sounds of the Northern Lights?

The sounds of the Northern Lights

It appears that the Northern Lights also produce sound, even though they occur in the vacuum of space. According to a recent article in The Conversation (cited below), scientists have recently detected sounds associated with the aurora borealis.

People have reported hearing things for over a century. But there has never been any scientific evidence to back it up. In a 2016 Finnish study, a researcher published his confirmation that the lights really do produce sound. He even made a recording to prove that it’s audible to the human ear. But not everyone is convinced. Even those who believe the lights could make sound insist it should not be audible to the human ear.

Some scientists suggest the sounds are caused by the interaction of the sun’s charged particles with the Earth’s magnetic field. As the particles collide and interact with the magnetic field, they create vibrations. These vibrations can be picked up by specialized equipment, such as radio receivers. However, they still shouldn’t be audible to us. That’s because they’re at frequencies that are much lower than what we can hear.

A continuing mystery – or mystery solved?

According to The Conversation, a Canadian astronomer has provided the most convincing evidence of the sounds of the Northern Lights.

“The answer to this enduring mystery which has subsequently garnered the most support was first tentatively suggested in 1923 by Clarence Chant, a well-known Canadian astronomer. He argued that the motion of the northern lights alters Earth’s magnetic field, inducing changes in the electrification of the atmosphere, even at a significant distance.

This electrification produces a crackling sound much closer to Earth’s surface when it meets objects on the ground, much like the sound of static. This could take place on the observer’s clothes or spectacles, or possibly in surrounding objects including fir trees or the cladding of buildings…”

While Chant’s hypothesis went largely unnoticed in the 1920s, scientists revisited it in the 1970s.

Today, “Chant’s theory is largely accepted by scientists today, although there’s still debate as to how exactly the mechanism for producing the sound operates.”

As the author, historian of science Fiona Amery, notes:

“What is clear is that the aurora does, on rare occasions, make sounds audible to the human ear. The eerie reports of crackling, whizzing and buzzing noises accompanying the lights describe an objective audible experience – not something illusory or imagined.”

Of course, in addition to producing sound, the Northern Lights are known for their stunning visual displays. They are typically seen in places close to the Earth’s magnetic poles, such as the Arctic and Antarctic regions.

They’ve become a popular tourist attraction in these areas. Scientists continue to study the phenomenon in order to better understand the mechanisms behind this natural “light show.”

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Source: “Do the northern lights make sounds that you can hear?” — The Conversation

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