Bright nights in shining airglow

Have you ever had one of those nights: you're stranded in the hinterlands, miles away from any source of artificial light, there's no moon, no aurora, yet suddenly you realize that it's bright enough to read a map and you seem to have no problem navigating the corn maze?

Surprisingly, you're not alone. Throughout history, there have been accounts of nights, without moonlight and without aurora and without electricity and without fire, where people noticed, "hey, I can see stuff!" These kinds of nights have cleverly been termed, bright nights.

The authors of an article accepted in Geophysical Research Letters think that satellite observations can explain this bright night phenomenon. Turns out it's all due to waves of airglow.

Airglow: the same atoms and molecules that glow in the aurora during magnetic storms, are essentially always glowing at low levels, just too faint for us mere mortals to see from the ground. Photo from  NASA .

Airglow: the same atoms and molecules that glow in the aurora during magnetic storms, are essentially always glowing at low levels, just too faint for us mere mortals to see from the ground. Photo from NASA.

The study suggests that, occasionally, multiple waves of airglow will align at a particular location in the upper atmosphere, leading to one extremely bright patch of airglow (perhaps right above your secret hinterland corn maze!). This area of intense airglow could be just barely perceptible by humans going about their night on the surface, who would say something like "huh. I think this night is brighter than usual. I'm going to call it a bright night." And then a Black Eyed Pea would call it a bright, bright night. And then we'd all laugh and laugh and not bump into each other because we can see everything because of airglow.