Did I see the Aurora Borealis as a child? (Beginner)

Sometime in 1937 or 1938 I observed the aurora borealis from my bedroom window in East Providence, Rhode Island. I cannot prove this and I need to. A friend on the East Coast (Boston) is planning a trip to northern Canada in order to see this phenomenon. I said I had seen it as a child in Rhode Island and she doubted it. I did see it and my mother explained it to us. Can I get some kind of proof that in those days, maybe because there wasn't much light where I lived or the pollution was non-existent, that I did witness these northern lights. Thank you.

Sara: There is an index number, known as Kp, which tells how heavy the geomagnetic action has to be to see aurorae at a given magnetic latitude. Kp on a typical day is about 4. In Rhode Island, you'd need a Kp of about 8 (with good viewing conditions). Ordinarily, this makes it unlikely to see aurorae in Rhode Island.

However...

on the night of Jan 25, 1938 there was a low-altitude red aurora. This type of aurora happens only in intense geomagnetic storms. The sky over North America was so bright that in many cities fire trucks were sent out to look for the flames! If it was on this night, I'm willing to bet that you did witness an aurora, and a great historical one at that!

In an all-red aurorae, low-energy electrons strike the upper atmosphere. The red light is emission from atomic oxygen. The electrons do not have energy enough to penetrate to lower altitudes, where they would cause emission of the green light that is also seen in aurorae that are red on top and green at the bottom.

Similar question: I am curious as to whether I saw the northern lights as a child in the 1950's. I could swear I did from the front door of the house which I believed faced north. Many beautiful lights. It was probably somewhere between 1952-1959. I lived near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which is in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Could you tell me if this was possible? I don't think I dreamed such a thing. My older sister and I were talking about it tonight but she does not remember. Thank You.

Karen: It is sometimes possible to see Aurora from as far south as Florida! It all depends on how active the Sun is and how the Earth's magnetic field is lined up. There is a site which does Aurora forcasting and they have a FAQ on where it is possible to see the Aurora. This has a nice diagram showing what percentage of the time it is possible to see Aurora from different locations. You can see the Pennsylvania falls into the 1-5% zone, meaning that on average 1-5% of the time Aurora can be seen. So while it's not very common to see Aurora from the location you mention, it is not impossible either.

If you read further down the page it also turns out that you might be remembering the 1958 auroras, which were unusally active and (according to that site) are a source of childhood memories of many adults. They also mention the similar episode of high activity in 1938 which Sara mentioned above.

 

This page was last updated on June 27, 2015.

About the Author

Sara Slater

Sara is a former Cornell undergraduate and now a physics graduate student at Harvard University, where she works on cosmology and particle physics.

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