If you thought that seeing the Northern Lights were out of reach (and budget) then think again…although auroral activity is most common over Scandinavia and Iceland, recent sightings have occurred a little closer to home. After a massive solar storm this week, the Northern Lights were spotted dancing over the north…that’s northern England, not the North Pole!
Stargazers were given a thrill after the aurora borealis made a rare appearance across parts of Britain – the skies lit up in absinthe green arcs across much of Scotland and even as far south as Cleveland, Cumbria, Northumberland and Yorkshire. In fact, astronomers are even predicting that London may get a peep at this hypnotic spectacle over the weekend.
What better way to celebrate Londoners dancing under the polar lights than with some fascinating facts? Here goes…
FACT 1: The aurora borealis was named after the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, coupled with the Greek for north wind, Boreas, by French philosopher Pierre Gassendi in 1621.
FACT 2: The origin of the aurora begins on the surface of the sun when solar activity ejects a cloud of gas. If one of these reaches earth’s magnetic field, complex changes to the magnetic tail region generate currents of charged particles which flow along lines of magnetic force. The dazzling light we see are these particles colliding with oxygen and nitrogen atoms.
FACT 3: Officially, we can see the Northern Lights anywhere, however they are more frequent in higher latitudes (Canada, Alaska, Antarctica). This is because Aurorae are concentrated in two giant ovals around earth’s magnetic poles.
FACT 4: Auroras tend to be more spectacular during high solar sunspot activity, which increases and decreases over an eleven year cycle.
On March 13, 1989, the entire sky turned a vivid red and the aurora was spotted as far south as Cuba.
FACT 6: The earliest known account of northern lights is from a Babylonian clay tablet based on observations made by the official astronomers of King Nebuchadnezzar II (568/567 BC)
FACT 7: Its southern counterpart, the aurora australis has almost identical features to its northern relative and even changes simultaneously with it.
FACT 8: The aurora even occurs on other planets. Similar to earth, they are visible close to the planet’s magnetic poles. Auroras have been observed with the Hubble Space Telescope on Jupiter and Saturn.
FACT 9: Churchill in Canada lies directly beneath the Auroral Oval in the Northern Hemisphere, with activity occurring on over 300 nights a year.
FACT 10: North American Inuit call the aurora “football players”, believing that the spirits of the dead are playing football with the head of a walrus.
Find out exactly how the aurora borealis works
Investigate the Norther Lights in the UK here
Check out UCL's Department of Space and Climate Physics here