The People Who Can Hear the Northern Lights

October 4, 2021

Some people have claimed the aurora borealis makes discernible crackling, whooshing or whizzing sounds. Are they highly perceptive, or are the sounds a trick of the mind?

It’s a question that has puzzled observers for centuries: do the fantastic green and crimson light displays of the aurora borealis produce any discernible sound?

Conjured by the interaction of solar particles with gas molecules in Earth’s atmosphere, the aurora generally occurs near Earth ‘s poles, where the magnetic field is strongest. Reports of the aurora making a noise, however, are rare – and were historically dismissed by scientists.

But a Finnish study from 2016 claimed to have finally confirmed that the Northern Lights really do produce sound audible to the human ear. One of the researchers involved in the study captured a sound, possibly made by the captivating lights, that was estimated to have originated 70m (230ft) above ground level.

Still, the mechanism behind the sound remains somewhat mysterious, as are the conditions that must be met for the sound to be heard. My recent research takes a look over historic reports of auroral sound to understand the methods of investigating this elusive phenomenon and the process of establishing whether reported sounds were objective, illusory or imaginary.

Auroral noise was the subject of particularly lively debate in the first decades of the 20th Century, when accounts from settlements across northern latitudes reported that sound sometimes accompanied the mesmerising light displays in their skies.

Witnesses told of a quiet, almost imperceptible crackling, whooshing or whizzing noise during particularly violent Northern Lights displays. In the early 1930s, for instance, personal testimonies started flooding into The Shetland News, the weekly newspaper of the subarctic Shetland Islands, likening the sound of the Northern Lights to “rustling silk” or “two planks meeting flat ways”.

These tales were corroborated by similar testimony from northern Canada and Norway. Yet the scientific community was less than convinced, especially considering very few western explorers claimed to have heard the elusive noises themselves.

The credibility of auroral noise reports from this time was intimately tied to altitude measurements of the Northern Lights. It was considered that only those displays that descended low into the Earth’s atmosphere would be able to transmit sound which could be heard by the human ear.

The problem here was that results recorded during the Second International Polar Year of 1932-33 found aurorae most commonly took place 100km (62 miles) above Earth, and very rarely below 80km (50 miles). This suggested it would be impossible for discernible sound from the lights to be transmitted to the Earth’s surface.

Given these findings, eminent physicists and meteorologists remained sceptical, dismissing accounts of auroral sound and very low aurorae as folkloric stories or auditory illusions.

Sir Oliver Lodge, the British physicist involved in the development of radio technology, commented that auroral sound might be a psychological phenomenon due to the vividness of the aurora’s appearance – just as meteors sometimes conjure a whooshing sound in the brain. Similarly, the meteorologist George Clark Simpson argued that the appearance of low aurorae was likely an optical illusion caused by the interference of low clouds.

Nevertheless, 20th-Century accounts written by two astronomer’s assistants claimed to have heard the aurora, adding some legitimacy to the large volume of personal reports.

One wrote they had heard a “very curious faint whistling sound, distinctly undulatory, which seemed to follow exactly the vibrations of the aurora”, while another experienced a sound like “burning grass or spray”. As convincing as these two last testimonies may have been, they still didn’t propose a mechanism by which auroral sound could operate.

This electrification produces a crackling sound, much like the sound of static, which could take place on the observer’s clothes or spectacles

The answer to this enduring mystery which has subsequently garnered the most support was first tentatively suggested in 1923 by Clarence Chant, a well-known Canadian astronomer. He argued that the motion of the Northern Lights alters Earth’s magnetic field, inducing changes in the electrification of the atmosphere, even at a significant distance.

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