Recently, Michiganders as far south as Ann Arbor were treated to an amazing Northern Lights show. Though neither person nor atmospheric ion can stay excited forever, clear skies allowed astronomy enthusiasts to beautifully preserve the event through photos.
The aurora resulted from the so-called "Saint Patrick's Day Solar Storm."
When super-charged particles from the sun interacted with the ions in the Earth's upper atmosphere, they caused these ions to absorb energy and become "excited."
Eventually, these ions released their excess energy in the form of light. Each different ion has a distinct color that it omits. The beautiful blues, greens and reds of the aurora are attributable to emission of light by nitrogen and oxygen, the two main components of our atmosphere. This is, in principle, how neon lights work as well.
Here is a time lapse view of the aurora from Peach Mountain Observatory near Dexter, MI. You can see airplanes zooming in the background, along with subtle shifting of the aurora's "curtain."
The further north you are, the more vibrant and pulsating the aurora colors appear. Here's how the event looked from the Upper Peninsula courtesy of Michigan Tech:
For more information on the science behind auroras, check out the video from the University of Oslo below:
-Ari Sandberg, Michigan Radio Newsroom