Brits will be treated to a spectacular natural light display tonight and throughout the rest of this week – the Northern Lights.
Also known as the aurora borealis, the dazzling phenomenon could be visible as far south as Cumbria, although it’s best viewed further north, according to the Met Office.
The Northern Lights is most commonly seen over places closer to the Arctic Circle such as Scandinavia and Alaska, so any sighting over the UK is a treat for skygazers.
On average, the aurora can be seen in the far north of Scotland every few months, but becomes more hard to see as you get further south.
In one rare instance, an aurora was captured by a Cornish photographer only last week.
British skygazers could be treated to a spectacular natural light display tonight and throughout the rest of this week in the form of the Northern Lights. The natural light display is pictured here at the Cantick Head Lighthouse Cottage on the Scottish island of South Walls, September 12, 2023
Auroras are created by disturbances in Earth’s magnetosphere due to powerful activity on the sun and are usually centred around the Earth’s magnetic poles.
The Met Office said the display this week stems from a coronal mass ejection (CME) – a massive expulsion of plasma from the sun’s corona, its outermost layer.
This CME – defined as a type of ‘solar storm’ – left the sun on Saturday (September 16) and has travelled at hundreds of miles per second to hit the Earth’s system of magnetic fields, causing the aurora.
A Met Office animation shows the auroral oval – the ring-like range of auroral activity that determines the range of the Northern Lights and where it will be most visible.
It suggests the aurora will be discernible on Wednesday and Thursday nights too, in case anyone misses the opportunity tonight.
‘The coming three-day period is likely to see some enhanced auroral displays at high geomagnetic latitudes, with aurora perhaps visible overhead for northern Scotland to start Tuesday following recent CME (coronal mass ejection) arrival,’ it said.
‘Activity could extend overnight into early Wednesday, though conditions unfortunately look unfavourable for prolonged clear skies for most regions at present.’
According to the Met Office, the display should be visible as far south as Northern Ireland and northern England, but cloud will likely limit any view further south than this.
A spokesperson told MailOnline that the furthest south the aurora could be seen in England will likely be Cumbria, the North Pennines and the Cheviot Hills.
A Met Office animation shows the auroral oval – the ring-like range of auroral activity that determines the range of the Northern Lights
The Met Office said the display this week stems from a coronal mass ejection (CME) – a massive expulsion of plasma from the sun’s corona, its outermost layer (artist’s depiction)
Spectacular pictures of the Northern Lights from the Hell’s Mouth area of the north coast near Camborne earlier this month
The northern lights (aurora borealis) over St Mary’s lighthouse in Whitley Bay on the north east coast of England. Picture date: Monday April 24, 2023
A display of aurora borealis over fisherman on Workington Pier, Cumbria, looking towards Scotland. Picture taken September 14, 2023
Aurora: A stunning natural display
The Northern and Southern Lights are natural light spectacles triggered in our atmosphere that are also known as the ‘auroras’.
There are two types of aurora: Aurora Borealis (‘dawn of the north’) and aurora australis (‘dawn of the south’).
The displays light up when electrically charged particles from the sun enter the Earth’s atmosphere.
Usually the particles, sometimes referred to as a solar storm, are deflected by Earth’s magnetic field, but during stronger storms they enter the atmosphere and collide with gas particles such as hydrogen and helium.
These collisions emit light. Auroral displays appear in many colours although pale green and pink are common.
In the Earth’s northern hemisphere, the Northern Lights are officially known as the aurora borealis, while in the south, the event is called aurora australis.
In the southern hemisphere, auroral activity ‘will probably peak during Tuesday but could extend overnight into early Wednesday’.
‘However, there is some uncertainty in arrival timing,’ Met Office added.
The US’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) also detected the event and has rated the solar storm ‘G2’ (on a scale of one to five), so it’s considered ‘moderate’.
But this does mean it could potentially disrupt satellites in space and power grids, including ‘possible widespread voltage control problems’.
CMEs are just one type of solar storms, but other types include solar flares – explosions on the sun that happen when energy stored in ‘twisted’ magnetic fields is released.
NASA explains: ‘There are many kinds of eruptions on the sun.
‘Solar flares and coronal mass ejections both involve gigantic explosions of energy, but are otherwise quite different.
‘The two phenomena do sometimes occur at the same time – indeed the strongest flares are almost always correlated with coronal mass ejections – but they emit different things, they look and travel differently, and they have different effects near planets.’
The US’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has rated the solar storm ‘G2’ (on a scale of one to five), so it’s considered ‘moderate’
A faint glow from the northern lights (aurora borealis) over Derwentwater looking towards Skiddaw mountain in the Lake District, Cumbria, during the early hours of September 8, 2021
Evacuees from Yellowknife, Canada, are met by the aurora borealis as they arrive to a free campsite in High Level, Alberta, August 18, 2023
Aurora borealis is seen above WW2 beach defenses on February 20, 2021 in Lossiemouth, Scotland
Particles from solar events can travel millions of miles, and some may eventually collide with the Earth.
According to Royal Museums Greenwich, most of the particles are deflected, but some become captured in the Earth’s magnetic field.
They’re accelerated down towards the north and south poles into the atmosphere, which is why an aurora is best seen nearer the magnetic poles.
‘These particles then slam into atoms and molecules in the Earth’s atmosphere and essentially heat them up,’ said Royal Observatory astronomer Tom Kerss.
‘We call this physical process “excitation”, but it’s very much like heating a gas and making it glow.’
This results in beautiful displays of light in the sky, known as auroras, which come in all sorts of different colours.
Oxygen gives off green and red light, while nitrogen glows blue and purple.
The aurora has fascinated and even frightened Earthlings for centuries, but the science behind it has not always been understood. Earth has an invisible forcefield, the magnetosphere, that protects us from dangerous charged particles from the sun. While it shelters us, it also creates the impressive natural phenomena
Earth-based observatories allow experts to detect CMEs and other solar activity as it happens and forecast when aurora will occur.
‘Information on the CME’s entire path opens the door to understanding why any given characteristic of the CME near the sun might lead to a given effect near Earth,’ NASA says.
‘Each additional piece of the puzzle helps us better understand just what causes these giant eruptions – and whether or not any particular CME could pose a hazard to astronauts as well as technology in space and on the ground.’
SOLAR STORMS PRESENT A CLEAR DANGER TO ASTRONAUTS AND CAN DAMAGE SATELLITES
Solar storms, or solar activity, can be divided into four main components that can have impacts on Earth:
- Solar flares: A large explosion in the sun’s atmosphere. These flares are made of photons that travel out directly from the flare site. Solar flares impact Earth only when they occur on the side of the sun facing Earth.
- Coronal Mass Ejections (CME’s): Large clouds of plasma and magnetic field that erupt from the sun. These clouds can erupt in any direction, and then continue on in that direction, plowing through solar wind. These clouds only cause impacts to Earth when they’re aimed at Earth.
- High-speed solar wind streams: These come from coronal holes on the sun, which form anywhere on the sun and usually only when they are closer to the solar equator do the winds impact Earth.
- Solar energetic particles: High-energy charged particles thought to be released primarily by shocks formed at the front of coronal mass ejections and solar flares. When a CME cloud plows through solar wind, solar energetic particles can be produced and because they are charged, they follow the magnetic field lines between the Sun and Earth. Only charged particles that follow magnetic field lines that intersect Earth will have an impact.
While these may seem dangerous, astronauts are not in immediate danger of these phenomena because of the relatively low orbit of manned missions.
However, they do have to be concerned about cumulative exposure during space walks.
This photo shows the sun’s coronal holes in an x-ray image. The outer solar atmosphere, the corona, is structured by strong magnetic fields, which when closed can cause the atmosphere to suddenly and violently release bubbles or tongues of gas and magnetic fields called coronal mass ejections
The damage caused by solar storms
Solar flares can damage satellites and have an enormous financial cost.
The charged particles can also threaten airlines by disturbing Earth’s magnetic field.
Very large flares can even create currents within electricity grids and knock out energy supplies.
When Coronal Mass Ejections strike Earth they cause geomagnetic storms and enhanced aurora.
They can disrupt radio waves, GPS coordinates and overload electrical systems.
A large influx of energy could flow into high voltage power grids and permanently damage transformers.
This could shut off businesses and homes around the world.