See the Northern Lights

2 minute read

This started as a post about things on my bucket list and as I was writing it I realized this has to be shared as people need this information now.

What are the Northern Lights?

Also known as the Aurora Borealis, it’s a very beautiful natural light display seen at high latitudes, like the Arctic. It’s caused by charged particles colliding at high altitudes these events are known as geomagnetic storms. Aurora also occur in the Southern Hemisphere but there are fewer places to see it and I don’t live there… It’s easier to see an example than describe it, I’ve heard it moves and changes quickly. I’ve avoided looking at videos as I want to see it myself.

30 July 2004, Philipe Moussette, Observatoire Mont Cosmos, Quebec, Canada 30 July 2004, Philipe Moussette, Observatoire Mont Cosmos, Quebec, Canada

When can I see it?

Geomagnetic storms follow an 11 year cycle and 2013 is the when the next one is due! There are more storms around the equinoxes (March-April and September-October). If you don’t see it this year then 2024 is probably your next chance.

Timing is everything as the storms are short lived. For the best chance of sighting an aurora, try to look around midnight (22:00-02:00). Geomagnetic activity can happen at any time but clearly you need to sleep if you work during the day!

How can I predict it?

You can’t, but the clever folks at The University of Lancaster run Aurora Watch and can alert you to strong geomagnetic activity in the UK. Follow them on Twitter: @BGSauroraAlerts. I’d recommend you enable mobile notifications on this account as timing is very important and it’s only a for a few months! I even reinstalled the Twitter app for this. There is science behind it and the map on the right will help you predict where you might see aurora. Or alternatively you can view the current activity.

Where can I see it?

  • In the north, so basically as far north as you can get, I’m in Cardiff so that’s around 51.5 degrees north.
  • Find a dark place away from light pollution, like street lights, parks are ideal.
  • On a cloud-free night, which is definitely tricky in the UK.
  • Typically look to the north although it could be overhead or elsewhere.

How can I increase my chances of seeing it?

  • Plan a holiday ‘up north’, in the UK, Shetland is a good choice. Or Iceland is also a good choice as it’s very far north and there will a lot of options to stay there.
  • Go camping! There will likely be no street lights and you’ll be able to stay up late to spot it.
  • Keep an eye on all the alerts or track hashtags on twitter, Twubs seems like a good option.

Good Luck

Happy aurora spotting and let me know if manage to see it! I suspect that being so far south I might not. Thanks to the fine folks at the British Geological Survey for most of my information.

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