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Why we see the northern lights and why cameras see them better

The back of two little girls in stocking caps looking out at the blues, pink and green skies of the northern lights.
Chris Walker
Two children look at the northern lights display Friday, May 10, 2024, over Pokegama Lake near Grand Rapids.

Bob Conzemius, also known as "Tornado Bob" or "Aurora Bob" on KAXE, is a meteorologist and wind energy expert. He explained the brilliant display of northern lights May 10 and 11 on the "KAXE Morning Show."

GRAND RAPIDS — The awe-inspiring Northern lights displays that captivated people across the United States this past weekend originate a long way from Earth's atmosphere.

KAXE contributor Bob "Tornado Bob" Conzemius is a meteorologist and aurora borealis enthusiast. He joined the KAXE Morning Show on Tuesday, May 14, to explain the science behind the lights. And it all starts with the sun — a giant fusion reactor, Bob said.

“[The sun is] fusing hydrogen into helium and in the process, it’s very hot in its surface,” Bob said. “The sun has what we call plasma, and the plasma is highly radiated.”

The gaseous material leaves the sun's surface, and then various types of solar wind, traveling at 200 miles per second, become a highly ionized gas. When that gas reaches the earth, northern lights occur — the result of highly charged particles that become hooked into our magnetic field.

Depending on the particle, different colors might appear in the aurora. The proliferation of cellphone cameras capable of capturing vivid color may be confusing some people who expect to see in the sky what they see in photos.

"Eyes don’t have the color sensitivity at that light intensity," Bob said. Listen to the full conversation above to hear more.

See Bob’s aurora borealis photos here. Did you see the northern lights? Tell us about it!

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