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Aurora borealis, northern lights

Nature’s Tourist Attractions

October 02, 2010
by Jill Marcellus
Looking for a journey more organic than the slide down Splash Mountain? More exciting than the grounded contemplation of California redwoods? You might want to capture one of nature’s fleeting—but spectacular—thrills.

Moonlighting Rainbows

If chasing rainbows strikes you as too easy, try pursuing their shadier cousins. Lunar rainbows, more affectionately called moonbows, are the majestic result of moonlight’s refraction through the mist of a waterfall.

Revered as an “elusive tourist attraction” by Bob Downing of the Akron Beacon Journal, they are known to occur in very few places, including Kentucky’s Cumberland Falls, California’s Yosemite Falls and Victoria Falls on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Texas State University collects and displays photos of moonbows from Yosemite Falls, and also provides a (predicted) moonbow schedule to help you personally capture the elusive sight.

Fluttering North and South: Butterfly Migration

One of nature’s most spectacular sights is itself a journey. Every autumn, monarch butterflies flock in the millions from the upper reaches of North America to the woods of Mexico, and then back again in the spring. 

Although following them is an ambitious adventure, it is one you should undertake soon. According to a captioned BBC slideshow of the monarchs, deforestation endangers both the butterflies and their already elusive display.

Fellow enthusiasts at Journey North can ease the journey, helping you track the monarchs’ movements and share your own sightings. Or, if you’d rather not migrate from your couch, this episode of PBS’ Earth Navigators follows the butterflies for you.

Nature’s Light Show

You might think that summer’s the best time to head to Alaska, but then you’d miss out on nature’s most spectacular light show. The Northern Lights—the fantastic spurts of color that light up the Arctic night—are easiest to see from September to April.

The colorful displays streak faster across the Web than they do the sky. A National Geographic photo gallery sharply captures the ethereal rays, while Northern Lights photographer Jan Curtis pictorially explains the different forms the aurora takes over the course of a night, from the “diffuse glow” of early evening to the stunning, sun-streaked “purple top.”

For the complete experience, the University of California offers a “self-guided,” multimedia tour, featuring video of auroras, interviews with NASA scientists, and educational background. You can even aurally experience the auroral display with the eerie sound recordings of University of Iowa’s Stephen McGreevy.

For a more scientific—but no less fantastical—take on these “substorms,” the NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center explains the “giant magnetic ropes” and “small explosions in the outskirts” that researchers are still exploring. As marvelous a sight as the lights are themselves, scientists evoke just as vivid an image in describing the events of the “magnetopause” region.

“The solar wind and Earth’s magnetic field meet and push against one another like sumo wrestlers locked in combat,” the center recounted. “There, the rope formed and unraveled in just a few minutes, providing a brief but significant conduit for solar wind energy.”

As you observe the Northern Lights, you may also want to reserve a glance for Saturn. The distant planet puts on its own auroral show—a spectacle no longer entirely beyond reach thanks to a research team from the University of Colorado at Boulder, which has photographed Saturn’s own Northern Lights. It’s also a helpful reminder that there are always more sights just beyond your grasp.

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