By coincidence, we’ll be in the UK at a pretty good time of year to see the aurora borealis, or Northern Lights! It’s something that I’ve been fascinated by ever since I read Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights – somehow it feels like it’s as close as you can get to magic. The northern parts of Scotland and Ireland are good places to view the aurora, although when it’s particularly strong it can be seen even further south in the UK, or even all over Europe! Of course an aurora of that magnitude is quite rare, and it’s impossible to predict when it will happen at all.
An aurora (plural: aurorae or auroras; from the Latin word aurora, “dawn”) is a natural light display in the sky particularly in the high latitude (Arctic and Antarctic) regions, caused by the collision of energetic charged particles with atoms in the high altitude atmosphere (thermosphere). The charged particles originate in themagnetosphere and solar wind and, on Earth, are directed by the Earth’s magnetic field into the atmosphere.
I discovered the site Aurora Watch UK, which tracks geomagnetic activity and will send out alerts through email, SMS, Twitter and Facebook when there’s activity. Over the past two weeks there has been a yellow alert (indicating that the aurora might be visible from the very north of Scotland) almost every day, and an amber or red alert (indicating the aurora should be visible in the northern UK or the whole UK) every several days. I’m hoping this is a good sign for us!
We’ll most likely be spending a week driving around Scotland, so if I get a message with an aurora alert we’re going to have to drop everything and drive to a good vantage point, with a bit of elevation and distance from too much light pollution. Sadly I don’t think I’ll have the right equipment to photograph it properly (I just can’t justify taking along a tripod), so unless I can hire some I’ll have to just settle for enjoying it with my eyes. But really, for such a magical experience I think that would be enough.
I’ll probably give it a shot anyway, even without a tripod. This article has a lot of great tips about photographing the aurora – maybe someday I’ll get a chance to make a trip to photograph it properly. This has piqued my interest in astro-photography in general, so a lot of similar techniques will come in handy.
Apparently the aurora australis, around the Southern Pole is more active than ever lately – a few months ago it was even visible from the hills south of Perth. Isn’t that amazing? I’ll have to keep an ear out in case it happens again, or make a trip out to Tasmania to see it in all its glory.
Have you ever seen an aurora? Was it magical?