Photo: Lukas Talab. Source: Picjumbo
Every so often, we get a display of the aurora borealis as far south as New Hampshire. Normally, the northern lights are only visible in high latitudes like Alaska, northern Canada, or Siberia, but occasionally they show up down here. Originally thought to be a false dawn blown about by the north wind – hence the name – an aurora is caused by electrons from the solar wind interacting with the earth’s magnetic field 50-100 miles up. There are southern lights in Antarctica and South America similar to the northern lights.
Native Americans believed northern lights were the spirits of departed friends dancing in the sky; Norse explorers thought the ocean was surrounded by vast fires; Benjamin Franklin wondered if the polar ice cap had excess electrical energy stored in the snow. Explanations were difficult because the lights come and go. It wasn’t until a couple of Swedish astronomers in the 18th century noted that compass needles move with the aurora’s fluctuations that the northern lights were tied to magnetic storms, and ultimately, the solar wind. Spacecraft have even observed auroras over Jupiter and Saturn, which have their own strong magnetic fields.
Aurora over Jupiter. Photo: John Clarke. Source: Hubble Telescope
During the great magnetic storm of 1859, the aurora produced a current so strong that some telegraph operators were able to send and receive messages without their batteries connected. Other stations and lines were damaged by the excess current. That aurora was visible as far south as Cuba and Hawaii.
Auroras have always been a source of marvel and mystery, the dancing lights eliciting a sense of awe. People get quiet and reflective when they see the northern lights dance across the sky. Shakespeare refers to them in his Midsummer Night’s Dream, calling them “Night’s swift dragons … Aurora’s harbinger.” Painters have been deeply moved by the display. Somehow, knowing where the lights come from doesn’t reduce our wonder and admiration.
“Aurora Borealis” by Frederick Church. Source: Smithsonian Institution
Markets can be like the northern lights, coming and going seemingly at random. They inspire a sense of awe. We know how they work and what they represent, but their ups and downs can be turbulent and unpredictable. At rare times, when their currents are excessively strong, they can damage institutions and individuals that depend on them. At those times, it may be prudent to turn off our devices and wait for the storm to pass.
Whenever we see them, the northern lights look beautiful in the night sky, a promise of something more. Let’s hope the lights – and the markets – can continue to deliver what they promise.
Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA
Charter Trust Company
“The Best Trust Company in New England”