Northern Lights – getting closer

Open the papers or look at the biggest news websites today and you will probably have seen some awe-inspiring pictures of the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis – and the photos haven’t just been taken in Scandinavia or Scotland!

Coronal Mass Ejection

Coronal Mass Ejections send supercharged particles towards the Earth. When they strike our atmosphere, they give off light, causing the Aurora Borealis (picture courtesy NASA)

Photographer Paul Kingston (follow him on twitter – @paulkingstonnp) caught the Aurora Borealis lighting Derwentwater in Keswick, Cumbria in this photo , which has been widely published on news sites and in today’s papers.

Jon Cooper took this photo of the display from his garden in Hardendale, just above Shap, in the Eden Valley. The lights were also seen in County Durham, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Hove (yes, that far south…)

The Aurora Borealis is caused when charged gas particles caused by eruptions – or Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) – on the sun strike atoms in the earth’s atmosphere, giving off energy and lighting the sky with a glowing display.

Generally, CMEs launched from the sun take 24 to 48 hours to reach our planet and the Northern Lights are usually seen closest to the poles of the earth. However, the solar cycle has been at a low ebb for many years and the sun is now waking up again, leading to more CMEs and a greater chance of seeing the auroras further south in the UK.

Solar flares

In August 2011, amost the entire Earth-facing side of the sun erupted in a tumult of activity, heralding a new ‘active’ phase of sunspot activity (photo NASA/SDO/AIA)

About a year ago, I was lucky enough to speak about solar storms to Dr Madhulika Guhathakurta, who is Lead Programme Scientist for NASA’s Living with a Star Initiative, co-chair of the Interagency Committee on Pace Weather and an expert in Heliophysics. She told me: “After a long absence, sunspots are now a daily occurrence. Forecasters now believe a new solar maximum will arrive around 2013.”

As well as knowing when a CME is heading towards the earth (for instance, by following @aurorawatchuk on Twitter), you need a clear night, little light pollution and to be wide awake – typically, displays occur after 22:00 and can last into the early hours of the morning.

It could well be worth keeping a close eye on the forecasts, packing a thermos flask, dressing as warmly as you can, finding a good vantage point and keeping your (gloved)  fingers crossed – you might, just might, have the good fortune to see one of nature’s most remarkable displays…

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