Animals & Wildlife Magazine

A Spectacular UK Showcase of the Northern Lights

By Frontiergap @FrontierGap

The Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights as they are popularly known by, are an elegant yet haunting sight often seen around the polar regions of our planet. As recently as February 2014, some parts of the UK were given the pleasant surprise of laying witness to the Northern Lights that managed to make their way further down, out of the polar circle which they are commonly seen within.

A Spectacular UK Showcase of the Northern Lights
Image courtesy of Brian Tomlinson

The unwitting public were showcased to a brilliant show of dancing lights, transforming shapes and changing colours, all before their very eyes. But how is the aurora formed in the first place, and how did it manage to make its way as far down as Yorkshire? To answer this question, we have to begin with the omnipresent form that provides life on our planet – the Sun.

The Northern Lights form when charged particles emitted from the Sun during a solar flare penetrate the Earth’s magnetic shield and collide with atoms and molecules in our atmosphere. These collisions result in countless little bursts of light called photons, which make up the aurora and can vary in color depending on what the atoms and molecules that the charged particles collide with.

For example, collisions with oxygen produce red and green auroras, while nitrogen produces the pink and purple colours that are somewhat rarer to see. This reaction encircles the polar regions of the Earth and occurs at an altitude of 40-400 miles in a zone referred to as the “Auroral Oval.”

The showcase of the Aurora Borealis in the UK was attributed to the strength of a solar flare that was sent towards the Earth from the Sun – which as a result caused a wider cast aurora display. Just like the Earth experiences different cycles at certain times of the year, the Sun similarly experiences cycles of its own.

The solar maximum, as it is referred to, is when the Sun reaches a peak in activity which comes around in an 11-year cycle. This causes an increase in sunspots on the Sun’s surface, where the sunspots explode with flares and spurt out huge clouds of charged particles into space more frequently, in the form of coronal mass ejections.

However, there is no danger caused to life on Earth as a consequence of a coronal mass ejection being directed towards the Earth, as our planet’s atmosphere and gravitational field protects its inhabitants from the harmful radiation that is sent towards us, much like a filter.

In saying this, there have been instances in the past where satellites and even technology have been damaged from large solar flares. In March 1989, Quebec had its power grid cut off from a huge solar storm and the city was left powerless for nine hours, incurring significant economic loss. So, where there are problems that could occur, they are often rare and do not cause widespread devastation.

Countries close to the arctic pole, such as Iceland and Norway, have developed Aurora hunting expeditions where people can pay to be taken to see the magnificent displays that are habitually created in the skies of the Arctic Circle. And with shows like BBC’s Stargazing Live being able to bring the natural wonders of the world to a larger audience, better resources and knowledge can be imparted to the public for any future opportunities to lay witness to the Northern, or indeed, Southern Lights.

By Manny Mahoon.

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