When you think of the northern lights — or aurora borealis — you might consider the term to be somewhat monolithic. But it turns out that there’s a much larger taxonomy of aurora utilized by those who have studied the phenomena up close. There are a host of auroras out there, with different patterns and behaviors. And it turns out that there are some types of auroras that are as yet unseen by human eyes.
Writing at Atlas Obscura, Sabrina Imbler explored the means by which one particular aurora was first documented. The article concerns the work of Minna Palmroth, a scientist and researcher who recently published a guidebook focusing on the aurora visible from Finland. Palmroth had been in touch with the members of a Finnish Facebook group whose name translates to “Aurora Stalkers,” and invited them to document the different types of aurora they encountered.
The group’s work yielded the photographs in the guidebook — but it also led to something unexpected.
A few members of the Facebook group noticed that the aurora they were photographing didn’t match up with anything in the book. They reached out to Palmroth, who asked them to document the phenomenon in more detail. How did these differ from the norm?
Most auroras appear like a bright arc of light smeared across the sky, but these waves extended outward from the aurora in finger-like rays. The citizen scientists coined the new lights “dunes,” as they almost resemble sand dunes in a lime-green desert.
Imbler writes that the result of all of this photography was proof that this was, indeed, something new. She writes that “Palmroth’s team of researchers [could] successfully determine that it was actually a new form of the phenomenon.”
For some, aurora are a beautiful sight in the night sky. For others, they’re evidence of atmospheric activity that might help us better understand the planet. As this discovery shows, there’s still plenty to discover out there.
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