Tips for Viewing the Northern Lights Tonight in the UK
According to Stargazing at Home columnist Abigail Beall, the aurora borealis, commonly known as the northern lights, were visible in the UK as far south as Cornwall on Sunday night and are expected to appear again on Monday night. Here are some tips on how to observe them.
Unusually, the northern lights, also known as aurora borealis, appeared farther south than their usual range on Sunday evening. Even sightings in Cornwall, a county located in southwest England, were possible. These stunning displays, characterized by green and red flickering lights in the night sky resulting from solar particles, are truly mesmerizing. If you didn’t get a chance to witness them on Sunday, there’s no need to worry. There’s still an opportunity to observe them later in the week, especially on Monday.
The northern lights are created by the solar wind, a stream of charged particles that travels from the sun’s outer layer, or corona. These charged particles, also known as solar flares, collide with the Earth’s magnetic field, which forms a protective shield around the planet, deflecting most of the particles. However, at the magnetic field’s weakest points around the poles, some particles penetrate the upper atmosphere, where they excite or energize gas molecules. When these molecules lose energy, they emit photons of light that form auroras.
The color of the auroras is determined by the type of excited molecule and the altitude of the collisions. The most common colors are pale yellow and green, which come from oxygen molecules situated at an altitude of 120 to 180 kilometers. Red auroras, which are less frequent, are created by oxygen around 200 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. Red-purple auroras come from nitrogen located below 100 kilometers.
When is the best time to see the northern lights?
If the solar wind is active, the aurora can be seen as soon as it is dark.
Where will the northern lights be visible tonight?
The visibility of the northern lights in the southern regions is influenced by the strength of the solar flare. The stronger the flare, the farther south they can be observed. It takes approximately a day for the particles to reach Earth, allowing us to forecast their strength up to 24 hours in advance. The UK’s Met Office predicts that the aurora will be visible again on Monday night, possibly even in central or southern England. To monitor the aurora’s activity for the rest of the week, it is advisable to check the forecasts provided by the Met Office or other aurora prediction applications.
When should you look for the lights?
Several websites and organizations continuously monitor the sun and provide aurora forecasts for the upcoming days or weeks. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website, for instance, offers observations of solar activity for the past three days and 30-minute predictions using the planetary K-index, or Kp, which measures the Earth’s magnetic activity on a scale of 0 to 9. The higher the Kp value, the more intense the activity. Typically, a Kp value of 8 is required to observe the northern lights with the naked eye in central England. Additionally, the free app AuroraWatch UK provides half-hourly aurora forecasts and allows you to set up email alerts to ensure that you don’t miss out on any celestial light shows.
How can you see the northern lights?
To observe the northern lights, find a dark location that is as far away from any light pollution as possible. If you are unsure where to go, try looking towards the northern horizon from a dark spot. After that, you must wait for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. However, don’t expect to see the vivid colors that are often shown in photographs because the aurorae are more subtle when viewed with the naked eye and can be challenging to spot at first. If you have a camera with a digital display, looking through the display can help confirm that you are looking at aurorae. Sometimes, they can appear greenish-white to the eye but very green on camera. Additionally, keep an eye on the weather forecast, as cloudy skies will obstruct your view of the northern lights.
How to take photographs of the display
Most smartphone cameras will be able to pick up the green hues of the northern lights. If you have a digital camera and a tripod, try a long exposure with the shutter speed set to a few seconds.