Now is the time to see Northern Lights

Scotland is located just outside the Aurora Oval, an imaginary oval that connects all the places where the Northern lights are usually visible. However, people have watched the Northern lights from Carlton Hill and Arthur’s Seat. While it is fainter than what you would see from Norway or Greenland, a severe geomagnetic storm usually makes its way to UK during the autumn and winter months.

Solar scientists now predict that, due to an 11 year solar cycle, we could be witnessing some of the brightest display of lights till 2025.

The Aurora Oval. Credit: Space Weather Prediction Centre

The Northern Lights, also called Aurora Borealis, is a curtain of light formed in the Earth’s upper atmosphere. This is a result of electrically charged particles from the Sun hitting the Earth’s atmosphere.

However, they don’t make their way to the surface as they are stopped by Earth’s magnetic field which protects us from these electrically charged particles. The particles are deflected and move towards the poles which leads to the display of lights we see in the sky. 

The aurora at Malham Cove, Yorkshire

The Northern lights depend on solar activity which fluctuates over a roughly 11 year cycle.

This is called the Solar cycle and is based on the Sun’s magnetic field: the Sun’s North and South poles keep exchanging places around every 11 years. Astronomers determine solar activity and the position of the poles by counting the number of sunspots. For instance when the Sun has a maximum number of sunspots it is called a Solar Maximum. 

Websites like Space Weather record solar activity daily as it affects the working of satellites, aviation and other communication networks. The last time a Solar Maximum happened was in July 2014.

Solar scientists in December last year recorded 67 sunspots as compared to the forecasted 26, indicating that geomagnetic activity is increasing. The new forecasted Solar Maximum is set to take place in July 2025..

Scientists at the University of Warwick also state that this current solar cycle could be one of the strongest ever recorded. This is good news for us in the UK because it could mean more frequent and brighter Northern Lights in the next few years. So keep a look out for these aurorae, as they could be some of the best ever seen by mankind!

In the UK, the phenomenon can be observed best in Scotland, North England, North Wales and Northern Ireland. However, cloud cover over these places reduces the chance of spotting the display of colours. It is also advisable to go to a place above sea level like Arthurs Seat so as to get above the city lights and fog.

Since solar scientist can’t predict solar activity far ahead of time, one can rely on several apps that update regularly to spot the aurora in their location. An app called My Aurora Forecast gives users different types of warning (green, amber and red) based on solar activity and the location’s weather.

Ananya Ganapathy (she/her) is a second year Astrophysics student.

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