Aurora Borealis: What are the Northern Lights and how can I see them?

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People travel to Nordic countries like Iceland and Norway to see the phenomenal Northern Lights

Here in the UK, we’re sticklers for spectacles in the sky. We go wild for meteor showers, eclipses, and most recently the fantastic Northern Lights.

The Aurora Borealis were visible across the UK for the first time since the early 2000s thanks to a rare solar storm.

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Skies up and down the country (including here in Nottingham) were painted vibrant hues of pink, blue and green on Friday night (May 10).

The storm was the strongest since 2003, with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issuing a rare G5 Extreme Solar Storm warning. 

The solar spectacle captured the interests of millions of people, who were keen to find out more about this ethereal wonder.

So we’re here to answer some of your celestial questions.

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What is the Aurora Borealis?

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The Aurora Borealis, commonly known as the Northern Lights, is a natural light display predominantly seen in high-latitude regions around the Arctic and Antarctic.

This awe-inspiring phenomenon occurs when charged particles from the sun collide with molecules in Earth's atmosphere.

These interactions excite the atmospheric gases, causing them to emit light in various colours.

The science behind it is quite complex, but the result is nothing short of mesmerizing.

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How do the Northern Lights get their colours?

The vivid colours of the Aurora Borealis are primarily due to the type of gas molecules that the solar particles interact with and the altitude at which these interactions occur.

Here’s a breakdown of the primary colours you might see when searching for the Northern Lights:

  • Green: The most common colour, caused by oxygen molecules located about 60 miles above Earth.
  • Pink and Red: Less common, these colours occur when high-altitude oxygen, above 150 miles, interacts with solar particles.
  • Blue and Purple: Nitrogen molecules produce these colours, adding to the spectrum of the Aurora.

Each of these gases emits light at specific wavelengths, which correspond to different colours, creating the kaleidoscopic effect that has fascinated observers for centuries.

Best places to see the Northern Lights

The northern lights over Arabaer near Selfoss in the south of Iceland.The northern lights over Arabaer near Selfoss in the south of Iceland.
The northern lights over Arabaer near Selfoss in the south of Iceland.

While the Aurora Borealis can sometimes be seen from various places around the globe, certain locations offer more reliable and spectacular views.

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Here are some of the top destinations for spotting the Northern Lights:

  1. Norway (Tromsø and the Lofoten Islands): Known for its stunning landscapes and high probability of clear skies.
  2. Iceland: Easily accessible from Europe and North America, with numerous viewing spots outside of Reykjavik.
  3. Sweden (Abisko National Park): Offers a unique "blue hole" effect, where clear skies are common.
  4. Finland (Lapland): Perfect for combining with winter activities like dog sledding and snowmobiling.
  5. Canada (Yukon, Northwest Territories): Remote and less light pollution, offering a pristine view of the Northern Lights.
  6. Alaska (Fairbanks): Known for frequent and vibrant displays, often accompanied by guided tours.

Aurora Borealis in the UK

While the UK is not typically known as a prime location for Aurora watching, as we recently witnessed it is possible to see the Northern Lights under the right conditions.

Scotland, especially the northern parts like the Shetland Islands, Orkney, and Caithness, offers the best chances. The nearby Peak District is also another location that is known for spotting the Northern Lights in the UK.

The visibility of the Aurora Borealis in the UK largely depends on solar cycles, geomagnetic storms, and clear, dark skies.

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Generally, the autumn and winter months provide the best opportunities, as the long nights and clearer skies improve the chances of spotting this elusive light show. However, patience and a bit of luck are essential ingredients for a successful sighting.