northern lights

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noun (used with a plural verb)
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Origin of northern lights

First recorded in 1715–25
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023


What are the northern lights?

The northern lights are the shimmering display of lights that sometimes appears in Earth’s Northern Hemisphere.

The phenomenon is also commonly called the aurora borealis. The northern lights are an aurora—a natural light display in the sky that is caused by particles from the sun interacting with Earth’s magnetic field. The word borealis is Latin for boreal, which simply means “northern.” The northern lights appear in many colors ranging from green and pink to red, yellow, and blue.

Auroras are not exclusive to Earth and occur on every planet in our solar system except Mercury. And the northern lights are not the only aurora on Earth. The aurora in the Southern Hemisphere is called the southern lights or aurora australis. Both the northern and southern versions can be called aurora polaris because they occur around Earth’s poles, but this term is not commonly used.

The northern lights dazzle the many people who travel to see the natural light show, which is considered one of Earth’s most magical phenomena.

Why are the northern lights important?

If you happen to find yourself way up north, you might get the chance to see a natural light display that puts any fireworks to shame. This light show is called the northern lights or aurora borealis and humans have been amazed by it for thousands of years. Recorded sightings date back to the ancient Babylonians and Assyrians, and the phenomenon may even be depicted in some ancient cave paintings. The term northern lights has been used since around 1720s. The name aurora borealis is thought to have been coined by Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei in the 1600s. The lights are named after Aurora, the Roman goddess of the dawn. The word borealis means “northern.”

The northern lights are a kind of aurora, a natural light display that occurs in the skies close to Earth’s north and south poles. The process that results in an aurora starts at the sun. Because it is both very hot and very magnetic, the sun frequently releases charged particles (such as protons and electrons) into space that zip toward the planets, including Earth. Earth is surrounded by an invisible magnetic field that protects it (and us) from this solar wind by bouncing it back into space. However, the magnetic field is weakest at Earth’s north and south poles, and some solar particles manage to enter Earth’s atmosphere close to these areas and collide with Earth’s gas particles (oxygen, nitrogen, etc). These collisions emit light that the human eye can see and this, finally, results in an aurora. The northern lights are the northern aurora, and the southern aurora is called the southern lights or aurora australis (australis is Latin for “southern,” and, yes, Australia’s name is based on this word).

While the northern lights technically appear throughout the year, the human eye isn’t always able to see them. The visibility of the northern lights depends on multiple factors such as your location, the weather, and the time of the year. Organizations such as NASA and NOAA that have studied the northern lights provide information for “aurora hunters”—people seeking to observe the lights. The northern lights are easiest to see during winter in cold, northern places such as Canada, Scandinavia, Greenland, Russia, and the North Pole itself, though they are sometimes visible at locations farther south.

Did you know ... ?

Like many celestial phenomena, the northern lights have been seen as an omen or sign of the gods by many different cultures. For example, a bright red aurora borealis was said to have been visible in the skies prior to the death of Julius Caesar as well as the outbreaks of the American Civil War and the French Revolution. This rare “bloody” version of the northern lights was thought to signal incoming bloodshed or violence.

What are real-life examples of the northern lights?

The northern lights are a spectacular display that can appear in many different colors. Some people travel just to see them.

Getty. The northern lights as seen in Alaska.


Quiz yourself!

True or False? 

The northern lights are caused by lightning.

How to use northern lights in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for northern lights

northern lights

pl n
another name for aurora borealis
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Scientific definitions for northern lights

northern lights

See under aurora.
The American Heritage® Science Dictionary Copyright © 2011. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Cultural definitions for northern lights

northern lights

See aurora borealis.

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.