I’ve been marathoning the show Vikings lately, and one of my favorite parts is when they are lazily lying on the ground and watching the aurora borealis above them with content-looking smiles. It makes me wonder what they are thinking; where this spectacular sight comes from.
Those of us who live close to the northern or southern poles, or have traveled near there, might have glimpsed an aurora in the night sky. Thousands of years ago, people had all kinds of explanations for an aurora. The Greeks believed that it was the sister of Helios (the sun) and Seline (the moon), racing across the sky in a chariot to alert her siblings of the coming dawn. The Chinese believed it was the fire released out of warring dragons, while many of the North American First Nations thought it was the spirits of their ancestors or unborn babies. And the Vikings (perhaps the characters in the TV show, as well) believed it was reflections caused by great shields and armor of the Valkyrie; the female warrior figures who chose the life and death of those in battle.
There are two auroras on Earth: the one near the north pole, known as the northern lights, is called aurora borealis, while the one near the south pole is called aurora australis, or the southern lights. These auroras originate from the sun during substantial solar storms that are called coronal mass ejection. During this occasion, particles from the sun fly toward Earth and travel along its magnetic field until it reaches both the southern and northern poles. There they mix with oxygen and give off one of the most spectacular neon green light displays that would shut down any rave. Both Jupiter and Saturn also host rave parties due to their magnetic fields, as well. Auroras are beautiful and magical and have captured the attention of many who have marveled at them.
But earlier this year, an unexplained vertical pillar of purple light appeared in the night sky of British Columbia, Canada. Like an aurora, it shimmered and moved in its radiance and even offered slight shimmers of green on its edges. As much of an aurora, it seemed to appear as it was not made of sun particles or of anything that creates an aurora. Something so magnificent and unknown to us must receive an otherworldly name; worthy of its beauty. And so, the onlookers named it, Steve. This “sky glow” has been seen on occasion for decades and, for decades, have boggled the minds of scientists though finally just this year, receiving its mention in scientific literature. Steve became so popular that the name had to stay and so it was later made an acronym: Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement (STEVE). I think it’s just so that they could say they ‘meant to call it that’. Steve is more confined than the auroras and acts more like a tall, slim ribbon with a width of about 16 miles wide. Steve is above the Earth about 200 miles away and reaches a height of up to 600 miles. Its temperature is about 5,500 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than either side of it, and its air moves 500 times faster. Keep in mind, heat is measured based on the average speed of the air molecules and so, not actually that hot to us.
And though it acts and looks like an aurora, scientists are still perplexed at what it is and how it happens. It’s like the case with magnets. We know how magnets work, but we don’t understand why when we charge particle, that they automatically create a magnetic field and two opposite poles. Similarly, all we know is that Steve is an ionospheric process; a formation found within the region of 50-600 miles above Earth’s surface, directly below the magnetic field and has something to do with it. But until that is better understood, it fascinates me that Steve remains a phenomenon. With over 7 billion people on this planet, exploring and trekking every inch of it for centuries, and as advanced as our science is, we can still be amazed and utterly clueless at 600 miles of glowing purple light that rips through our atmosphere. And it’s not like it’s a flash, Steve sticks around for a good twenty minutes showing off all his best angles! We have spread all over this planet, conquering wars and claiming land, yet we know so little of it. Nearly three-thirds of Earth is the ocean, and we have only explored 20% of it. We have cataloged 1.3 million species, but 86% of the planet’s species are still undiscovered. And who knows what tombs or temples lie beneath our feet, or what worlds exist above our heads? Some may find this ignorance to be discomforting or fearful. Some may find it exciting; waiting to be discovered and named on some grand adventure. I find it, however, completely humbling. How wonderful it is to be a part of a species that has filled and subdued the Earth with such knowledge and technology, and still we can be amazed and perplexed at what this planet has to offer! And how wonderful it is to view that perplexity on the faces of the men and women who have spent their entire lives studying them. We are a curious type, after all, always have been. How wonderful it is to still have that awe and curiosity at life’s mysteries.
Who knows what Steve is. Maybe someday we’ll find out that it’s just reflections from shields and armor.
Kansas Stanton is a Neo-Pagan who resides in Seattle, Washington. He belongs to, and practices with, a local group of Reform Pagans and blogs at https://leavesontheroad.wordpress.com/. He also volunteers every year at the Esoteric Book Conference in Seattle and regularly attends various Pagan festivals and events.
He is a full-time student, earning his degree in Environmental Science and a Certificate in Sustainability, after which time he will move on to grad school (climate science). When Kansas is not in class or working his job in the art industry, he also attends heavy metal concerts both locally and internationally. He is also a vegan outdoorsman who frequents the trails and whitewater rivers of the pacific northwest and loves to spend his time with friends over a cold, dark beer.