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Those who live in the north have the opportunity to see the aurora borealis, or the northern lights, on occasion, and it’s a beautiful sight. I saw them for the first time one summer more than 30 years ago when I was living in Hamilton, New York. The aurora are caused by solar activity which in turn causes changes in the stream of charged particles (protons and electrons for the most part) we call the solar wind. Variation in the solar wind disturbs the Earth’s magnetosphere, which normally diverts these particles away from the Earth. If the disturbance is strong enough, the charged particles make it into the upper atmosphere where they ionize the gas molecules there, which then luminesce, producing pretty colors in the night sky. The auroras are generally associated with periods of more intense solar activity.
However, this process is not the only one that causes pretty lights in the sky. There is another such phenomenon which is rarer than the auroras, and often closer to the equator. It features a purple-pink arch and vertical streaks of green. This phenomenon is often observed simultaneous to the aurora, but it happens lower in the atmosphere, and while auroras can be many different colors, this other phenomenon has a more limited (though still dramatic) palate. Until very recently, no one knew what caused it, and it didn’t have a name. Because they didn’t know what caused it, scientists were hesitant to put a name to it. However, there are many citizen-scientists whose hobby is chasing and photographing these colorful atmospheric phenomena, and one of them suggested that, until such time when scientists understand the phenomenon, they should just call it Steve. So they did. (This is a reference to the animated film “Over the Hedge.”)
It turns out that the phenomenon that causes a Steve is called subauroral ion drift, which scientists had discovered some time ago; what they didn’t know it that such drift could emit light. Steve starts off as an aurora, specifically a red arc, but then migrates south and descends in the atmosphere, where it can turn into a Steve. Because scientists are prone to do these sorts of things, they turned Steve into an acronym so as to justify continuing to use the term: strong thermal emission velocity enhancement. So now it’s official.
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