You’ve probably heard that there’s a chance people in the UK will be able to see the northern lights tonight – it’s on the TV, the radio, it’s all over the internet like a picture of a kitten asleep in a bed of roses, it’s everywhere – and a lot of people are getting VERY excited about this. But what’s actually going on? And what might we see tonight if we’re lucky? The sky aflame? Great beams and rays of light stabbing up into the sky? Curtains of green and gold flapping and swishing after dark, filling the sky with their auroral beauty???
Take a deep breath everyone… calm down… let’s take a look.
Ok, firstly – why? Why might we see the northern lights tonight?
Well, long story cut short, there’s been a big solar flare that has sent a huge amount of “Sun stuff” hurtling towards us at a quite ridiculous speed. WHAT???!!! No, don’t panic, we’re safe. Earth has natural “shields” which protect us from solar broadsides like this. We’re not about to get fried, no matter what you read on the less reputable internet sites and conspiracy nutcase forums. What MIGHT happen is that when this stuff hits Earth’s magnetic field it COULD, if all the conditions are right, trigger a big display of the northern lights, so big that we MIGHT be able to see it from parts of the UK we normally can’t see it from, i.e. right down from the tip of Scotland to Northern England. If a really big display – an auroral “storm” – kicks off, people as far south as London might see the northern lights in the sky, but that’s quite a longshot to be honest. I think the best we can hope for is for some kind of auroral activity to be visible as far south as North Wales, maybe a little lower. BUT a lot of things have to happen in the right way for that to happen, so we all have to cross our fingers and just wait and see.
WHEN WILL IT HAPPEN? Well, auroral activity could start at any moment, while you’re reading this in fact, but if it kicks off during daylight obviously we won’t see anything because it will be daytime. Statistically the best time to see aurora from the UK during increased activity is between 9pm and midnight, but with something like this, a potential storm, I think it will be worth looking north to see if anything is happening in the sky as soon as it gets dark, from about 5pm really. DON’T leave it too late, you might miss something, or the whole thing.
WHERE’S THE BEST PLACE TO LOOK FROM? The further north you are, the better. There’s more chance you’ll see something if you live in Scotland, or the north of England, than if you live in the Midlands or further south, and there’s no getting around that. As for your own personal observing site, you might be able to see something from your garden, from your doorstep if it faces north, but wherever you are you will improve your chances of seeing something HUGELY if you make the effort to get out of town – away from all the streetlights, house security lights, lit-up pubs and supermarkets etc – and find yourself somewhere nice and dark out in the countryside. Also, you want to see as much of the sky as possible, so although you might be tempted to find a quiet lake surrounded by hills or mountains to block out the lights of neighbouring towns etc, just be sure you don’t lose too much of the actual sky. At the very least you want a flat, low, northern horizon, because you’ll be looking north for activity, and some of it may be very low in altitude, and you don’t want hills, buildings or great big forests getting in the way. A few trees might help though, for reasons I’ll come to later.
WHAT WILL WE SEE? Ah, that’s the million billion pound question, isn’t it? What will we see… let me look into my crystal ball… Well, hopefully there will be a lot of activity after dark tonight, and we will see a “classic” northern lights complete with the colourful rays, beams, curtains and arcs we’ve all seen in pictures and on the telly. But that can’t be guaranteed. We might just see a vague greenish glow in the northern sky, like a green haze, and nothing more…
Or we might see a pale green “rainbow” with colourful rays going up from it…
We might be lucky and see a full on display, with rippling curtains and pulsating rays…
…which would be brilliant, obviously, but please don’t count on or expect that! It might happen, but it might not, we just don’t know yet, and there’s still a chance this all might go horribly wrong and we see nothing at all.
And even if a big display does kick off, please don’t go out there expecting to see the northern sky ablaze and alive and going crazy with rapidly swaying and swishing curtains of green and searchlight beams of blue and red leaping up into the sky, flashing on and off, climbing and falling again and again. You’ll have seen that kind of thing on TV and on YouTube clips, I’m sure, but that footage is almost always speeded up and enhanced for dramatic effect. The northern lights DO move, but slowly, gently, subtly. Take it from someone who’s seen displays both subtle and amazing, watching the aurora is less like watching a ship’s great canvas sail flapping and slapping in the wind and more like watching a lace curtain moving and swelling slowly as a breeze blows behind it.
If you want to get an idea of what the northern lights REALLY look like, this YouTube clip – footage of the aurora filmed in real time, with no speeding up or enhancing – is about the closest you’ll get… “Dance Of The Spirits”
WHAT EQUIPMENT DO I NEED TO SEE THE DISPLAY IF IT HAPPENS? None. No astronomical equipment at all. A telescope is utterly, utterly useless for observing the aurora with because telescopes zoom in on a tiny part of the sky, to magnify and brighten something like a galaxy, or a star cluster, and an auroral display can cover a huge chunk of the sky. Binoculars aren’t really much use either; they might help you get a closer look at any bright, sharp-edged beams or edges of curtains, but no, really an aurora is a naked eye sight. You want to be standing there, in the dark, looking up, and around you, taking in the view, as the curtains gently ripple and sway, and ripples work their way along, across and down the structures in the sky. So you just need your eyes, under a clear dark sky, with no light pollution to ruin the view.
A couple of tips tho. Firstly, wrap up warm. Very warm. Warmer than you think you’ll need to. Because you’re going to be standing outside, in the dark, for hours (hopefully) and you WILL start to feel damp, and cold, no matter how big and brave you think you are. Even if an aurora does become visible from the UK tonight there might be long periods when activity dies down and nothing is happening, and it’s at those times you will start to feel the cold, trust me. So, WARM!
Also, if you can, try and see this with company. Not just to keep you awake and motivated in the soul-sappingly quiet periods when your enthusiasm will flag and a voice will start whispering seductively in your ear “That’s it, it’s finished… poor you, you’re cold, and tired, and you’ve got work in the morning, go home, you’ve seen enough…” (because trust me, if you do that, as soon as you get back in the car and turn your back on the aurora it will flare up and laugh at you..!) but because it just makes it so much more enjoyable to view it in company. You can talk about what you’re seeing, point out features and activity, and generally just enjoy the show with others, which makes it much, much more enjoyable.
CAN I TAKE PHOTOGRAPHS? Yes, and if you’ve a camera you absolutely must try, because you’ll want to try and keep some memories of this special event. But some cameras are much better than others, and will improve your chances of getting a good photo to keep. The “point and shoot” digital camera you take to parties to photograph your friends with MIGHT manage to capture the glow of the aurora if it’s a bright enough display, but really you’ll need to use a camera that can take time exposures of several seconds – ideally up to ten seconds – and can be set at a high ISO rating (what used to be called “film speed”). That might be a fancy Digital SLR (DSLR) or a “Bridge Camera”. If you aim one of those at the northern sky, with the lens wide open (set at the lowest “f number”, ideally something like “f2″ or something like that), and the ISO set at maybe 1600, and take a ten second or so exposure, you’ll get something. Only got the camera on your smartphone or tablet? Doesn’t matter. Give it a try anyway!
Ah, remember I mentioned trees earlier? Well, try to have some on your northern horizon, because they’ll help give your pictures a sense of scale. Also, they look great silhouetted by the northern lights, very atmospheric! And, another top tip, if you can’t see anything happening when you start looking, take some pictures anyway, because there might be very weak activity going on that your eyes can’t detect but your camera can. So try a few time exposures of the northern sky right after dark, and you might be surprised to see those trees silhouetted against a ghostly barely-there glow…
Got no camera at all? IT DOESN’T MATTER! People all over the country will be taking photos, you can look at theirs. The main thing is you get out there and see it.
But a quiet word of caution here – don’t get so caught up with the desire to get photographs that you don’t look at the sky. It’s so, so easy to do that. Take photos, yes, but make sure you spend MORE time looking at whatever’s happening in the sky. That’s the most important thing.
…so there you go, that’s your aurora watching guide. To summarise:
* We MIGHT see the northern lights from the UK tonight, and we might not.
* If we do, it MIGHT be an impressive display, or it might not.
* You’ll have more chance of seeing it the further north you live.
* Wherever you live, you’ll improve your chances of seeing it if you get away from streetlights and find somewhere dark to observe from.
* Having found somewhere dark, give your eyes time to adapt TO that darkness. It’s called, funnily enough, “dark adaption”, and after twenty minutes or so you’ll be amazed how much more you will see in the sky than when you got there.
* If an aurora starts – ENJOY IT! Don’t obsess about photos, or seeing everything, or missing anything, just look up, watch, and smile. You might not see another one of these for a long time.
* Stay out as long as you can. You don’t want to give up too early, go home, and read the next day that soon after you got into bed the display REALLY went nuts..!
…and I think that’s it. I hope you found this information useful, and that we all see something lovely tonight, wherever we are.