How to see the Northern Lights in the UK TONIGHT: Aurora will be visible unusually far south this evening as Earth is slammed by solar winds
- The Northern Lights – aurora borealis – could be visible in Edinburgh tonight
- Met Office forecasts the arrival of streams of charged particles, or solar winds
- These will have passed through a ‘hole’ in the sun’s atmosphere
If you missed the Northern Lights appearing in the UK last month, don’t be too disheartened, as you have another chance to catch them tonight.
The spectacular light show is due to be visible unusually far south, thanks to a ‘hole’ in the sun’s atmosphere.
If a region in the sun’s corona – the outermost part of its atmosphere – becomes cooler and less dense, streams of charged particles called ‘solar winds’ can pass through.
These particles are funnelled towards Earth by the planet’s magnetic field, and appear as vibrant colours when they interact with our atmosphere.
The Met Office has confirmed that the arrival of particularly fast solar winds could mean the famous aurora borealis will be visible as far south as Edinburgh tonight.
If you missed the Northern Lights appearing in the UK last month, don’t be too disheartened, as you have another chance to catch them tonight. Pictured: Northern lights over Portobello beach in Edinburgh, Scotland
The Met Office has confirmed that the arrival of particularly fast solar winds could mean the famous aurora borealis will be visible as far south as Edinburgh tonight. Pictured: Aurora forecast in Northern Hemisphere tonight at 21:00 GMT
Earlier today, two ‘coronal mass ejections’ (CMEs) arrived at our planet, which erupted from the sun on March 20.
WHAT ARE CORONAL HOLES?
Coronal holes are regions of the sun’s corona, the outermost part of its atmosphere, where the magnetic field reaches out into space rather than looping back down onto the surface.
Particles moving along those magnetic fields can leave the sun rather than being trapped near the surface. Those trapped particles can heat up and glow.
In the parts of the corona where the particles leave the sun, the glow is much dimmer and the coronal hole looks dark.
Coronal holes were first seen in images taken by astronauts on board NASA’s Skylab space station in 1973 and 1974.
CMEs are sudden releases of plasma and magnetic field from the sun’s corona, which is also able to interact with the atmosphere to give the Northern Lights.
While not visible, they did increase the Earth’s geomagnetic activity from ‘Unsettled’ to ‘Active’, and increased the chance of major solar storms.
This is when solar winds or CMEs impact the Earth’s magnetic field to the extent that they can cause blackouts or disrupt the power grid.
The fast winds are due to arrive through the coronal hole later on this evening, and continue into Friday.
Maps provided by the Met Office predict activity at 21:00 GMT tonight, 22:00 GMT tomorrow and 00:00 GMT on Sunday, getting gradually weaker.
Met Office forecasters said: ‘Enhancement to the aurora is possible overnight on the 22nd into the 23rd, as geomagnetic activity increases upon the arrival of fast winds from coronal hole 86, although there is some uncertainty on the arrival time which may be later into the 23rd.
‘This may be enhanced further by the passing effects of glancing coronal mass ejections.
‘There is a chance of aurora being visible as far south as southern Scotland in this scenario.’
Maps provided by the Met Office predict activity at 21:00 GMT tonight, 22:00 GMT tomorrow and 00:00 GMT on Sunday, getting gradually weaker. Left: Aurora forecast in Northern Hemisphere tomorrow at 21:00 GMT Right: Aurora forecast in Northern Hemisphere for Sunday at 00:00 GMT
While commonly visible from the Arctic and Antarctic Circles, the Northern Lights rarely grace the night sky any further south. Pictured: Northern lights over Findhorn in Moray, Scotland
While commonly visible from the Arctic and Antarctic Circles, the Northern Lights rarely grace the night sky any further south.
Oxygen gives off green and red light, while nitrogen glows blue and purple, and the lights are more often seen in winter when the nights are cold, long and dark.
The energy and small particles from the solar activity travel down the magnetic field lines towards the Earth’s poles, so they appear most strongly there.
But if the activity is really strong, these phenomena can be visible further away.
On the nights of February 26 and 27, two particularly strong CMEs meant stargazers as far south as Kent and Cornwall experienced them too.
The best way to see the Northern Lights will be to find a dark place away from street lights and ideally a cloud-free sky, according to the British Geological Survey.
Experts say skywatchers should generally look to the north, although the spectacular sight can be overhead or elsewhere.
In the north the display is known as the aurora borealis, and in the south it is called the aurora australis.
Oxygen gives off green and red light, while nitrogen glows blue and purple, and the lights are more often seen in winter when the nights are cold, long and dark. Pictured: Northern Lights over the Hebrides in Scotland
The energy and small particles from the solar activity travel down the magnetic field lines towards the Earth’s poles, so they appear most strongly there. Pictured: Northern lights over St Andrews in Scotland
The sun goes through an 11-year solar cycle which sees its magnetic field become more or less active.
This in turn causes a fluctuating amount of activity on the sun’s surface.
Surface activity has been increasing ever since the last solar minimum in 2020, so our star is currently at its most active since 2014.
It is expected to reach solar maximum in 2025, so more of these aurora displays are expected in the coming months and years.
An example of this is the colossal ‘solar tornado’ spotted earlier this month that reached a height 14 times larger than Earth.
The twister, composed of plasma and heat, measured more than 74,500 miles high and moved up to 310,000 miles per hour.
Solar tornadoes occur due to spiral-shaped magnetic structures that rise from the sun and are rooted to the solar surface at both ends.
When a column of plasma, known as a prominence, shoots up inside this structure, it is guided along its helical magnetic field, causing the plasma to rotate and form a twister.
SOLAR STORMS PRESENT A CLEAR DANGER TO ASTRONAUTS AND CAN DAMAGE SATELLITES
Solar storms, or solar activity, can be divided into four main components that can have impacts on Earth:
- Solar flares: A large explosion in the sun’s atmosphere. These flares are made of photons that travel out directly from the flare site. Solar flares impact Earth only when they occur on the side of the sun facing Earth.
- Coronal Mass Ejections (CME’s): Large clouds of plasma and magnetic field that erupt from the sun. These clouds can erupt in any direction, and then continue on in that direction, plowing through solar wind. These clouds only cause impacts to Earth when they’re aimed at Earth.
- High-speed solar wind streams: These come from coronal holes on the sun, which form anywhere on the sun and usually only when they are closer to the solar equator do the winds impact Earth.
- Solar energetic particles: High-energy charged particles thought to be released primarily by shocks formed at the front of coronal mass ejections and solar flares. When a CME cloud plows through solar wind, solar energetic particles can be produced and because they are charged, they follow the magnetic field lines between the Sun and Earth. Only charged particles that follow magnetic field lines that intersect Earth will have an impact.
While these may seem dangerous, astronauts are not in immediate danger of these phenomena because of the relatively low orbit of manned missions.
However, they do have to be concerned about cumulative exposure during space walks.
This photo shows the sun’s coronal holes in an x-ray image. The outer solar atmosphere, the corona, is structured by strong magnetic fields, which when closed can cause the atmosphere to suddenly and violently release bubbles or tongues of gas and magnetic fields called coronal mass ejections
The damage caused by solar storms
Solar flares can damage satellites and have an enormous financial cost.
The charged particles can also threaten airlines by disturbing Earth’s magnetic field.
Very large flares can even create currents within electricity grids and knock out energy supplies.
When Coronal Mass Ejections strike Earth they cause geomagnetic storms and enhanced aurora.
They can disrupt radio waves, GPS coordinates and overload electrical systems.
A large influx of energy could flow into high voltage power grids and permanently damage transformers.
This could shut off businesses and homes around the world.
Source: NASA – Solar Storm and Space Weather
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