Mystery of Bright Nights

Photo doesn’t actually show the bright night phenomenon. There were no photos of it.

Throughout the millennia people have reported strange bright nights where the outdoor light was so bright, they could easily move around and even read a newspaper by it. Much speculation has been made as to what causes this phenomenon, but we may now have the answer.

Bright nights are an atmospheric phenomenon where the sky at night is so bright, people are able to see as though it were daytime.  Bright nights were first reported in ancient times by Pliny the Elder who wrote, “The phenomenon commonly called ‘nocturnal sun,’ i.e., a light emanating from the sky during the night, has been seen during the consulate of C. Caecilis and Cn. Papirius (~113 BC), and many other times, giving an appearance of day during the night.” (Photo below left, Pliny the Elder.)

According to an article in Science Daily, there were also occurrences of bright nights in Europe in 1783, 1908, and 1916. What’s interesting is that all of the documented accounts of this phenomenon describe it in the same way, so we are sure they are all describing the same thing.

It’s not seen as much nowadays because of the prevalence of lights at night, otherwise known as light pollution. But it can occur anywhere around the world.

UFO? Magic? Omen?

Needless to say, people have struggled over the centuries to understand what this light phenomenon means and what causes it. Superstition usually entered the fray and some people would say it was an omen of things to come, or else caused by some malevolent witchcraft. In modern times, UFOs spring to mind as the root cause of these mysterious lights.

You have to wonder why our advances in science haven’t shed more light on the mystery of the bright lights. Guess what? They recently have!

The atmosphere of Earth is a layer of gases surrounding the planet Earth that is retained by Earth’s gravity.

Riding the Wave

Researchers at York University in Toronto, Canada have solved the mystery of the bright lights. According to Gordon Shepherd, an aeronomer involved in the study, “Bright nights do exist, and they’re part of the variability of airglow that can be observed with satellite instruments.”

Airglow is an atmospheric condition caused by chemicals in the upper layers of the Earth’s atmosphere. The chemicals emit various colors of light due to chemical reactions that they undergo way up in the atmosphere.

From 1991-2005, an instrument called the Wind Imaging Interferometer (WINDII) was part of NASA’s Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite and it collected much of the data used by Shepherd and his colleagues in their research from that upper layer of Earth’s atmosphere.

For example, the sun can sometimes reach oxygen molecules there and split them into atoms. As the atoms recombine in that dynamic environment they emit excess energy as green light, thereby giving the sky a green tinge.

The peaks of airglow production in the upper atmosphere coincided with the rise and fall of upper atmospheric waves called zonal waves. Weather can impact these waves and they occur all over the Earth.

According to the article in Live Science, “When the peaks of certain waves aligned, they produced bright night events that could last for several nights at a specific location. These events were four to ten times brighter than normal airglow and could be responsible for the bright nights observed throughout history.”

Commenting on the study, Jurgen Scheer (aeronomer at Instituto de Astronomia y Fisica del Espacio in Buenos Aires) said, “This [study] is a very clear, new approach to the old enigma of what makes some night skies so remarkably bright, and the answer is atmospheric dynamics.”

Rarely Seen

According to Shepherd, bright nights only occur on about seven percent of Earth’s nights.  Given all the light pollution in the world today, they may occur but we may not notice them. We’re far more likely to see electrical phenomena such as shown in the graphic, right.

What it Means for Cryptozoology

So often people see strange lights in the skies and immediately want to blame UFOs and other types of alien activity.  Sometimes they blame them on ghosts, especially when ball lightning is involved.

But this study shows us that we’re still learning about natural Earth phenomena, and it shows how little we know so far about some intricate and large-scale processes.

This is one mystery that has been solved – hurray! But there are many more to go.

We’d all do well to keep this phenomenon in mind the next time we’re out looking for strange creatures, UFOs, whatever. There may be a rational, scientific explanation for any weird lights that you see.

The more we can whittle away at these Earth mysteries, the closer we’ll get to the truth about whether the creatures/UFOs and other phenomena we seek, actually exist.

Have you ever seen bright lights at night? When and where?

Fun Fact: What exactly is an aeronomer?  Someone who studies the chemical and physical phenomena in the upper atmosphere. The science is called aeronomy.



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