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Northern Lights Display a Spectacular View in the UK

On May 10th, Friday, an extraordinary event unfolded as the northern lights graced the skies of the southern UK and numerous European countries, surprising residents unaccustomed to such displays.

Met Office spokesperson Stephen Dixon highlighted the rare opportunity for observation, particularly in Scotland, Ireland, and parts of northern England and Wales, thanks to heightened solar activity. While the aurora typically occurs within the aurora oval, spanning latitudes 60 to 75 in the northern hemisphere, intensified solar activity can expand its reach to regions within the temperate zone. Consequently, countries like Norway, positioned near the North Pole, are renowned for offering exceptional experiences in northern light stargazing.

Likewise, aurora lights are typically seen in the northern parts of the UK and Scandinavian countries, so the fact that the southern UK and other European countries being able to catch a glimpse of the lights was significant.

What Are Northern Lights?

Aurora that can be seen from the northern hemisphere is called aurora borealis or northern lights, while aurora visible from the southern hemisphere is named aurora australis or southern lights.

The northern lights, often dubbed the "Holy Grail of skywatching," are a captivating natural phenomenon caused by the interaction of charged particles from the sun with Earth's atmosphere. Solar storms or flares propel these particles, which collide with atmospheric gases, producing colorful displays visible at night. Nitrogen predominantly generates green hues, while oxygen contributes to purples and pinks. This celestial spectacle, characterized by luminous, swirling patterns of light, varies in color from vibrant greens to delicate pinks, captivating observers globally.

The scarlet red color, on the other hand, arises in the case of high altitude oxygen interacting with energetic solar particles.

Furthermore, a massive explosion on the Sun, also known as coronal mass ejections, renders auroral spectacles since they release hot plasma clouds moving with nearly two million miles per hour. The clouds and particles get into interaction with the magnetic field of Earth, inducing geomagnetic storms which raise the chances of observing northern lights.

Sun’s activity fluctuates and reaches its maximum every 11 years. The last peak was in 2014; therefore, rising solar activity is already being predicted in the mid-2020s.

Planets having an atmosphere and magnetic field also potentially have aurorae. To exemplify, scientists were able to catch images of aurorae on Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

Northern Lights in the UK: An Extraordinary Event

According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Earth was struck by a G5 geomagnetic storm on Friday, classified as “extreme” and representing the most powerful level of a solar storm. Considering the last extreme G5 storm occurred more than 20 years ago, the storm that took place on Friday is particularly distinctive. NOAA also stated that the storm could deliver northern lights as far south as Alabama and northern California.

Thus, the recent Geomagnetic storm that was categorized as in the highest level may affect infrastructure such as satellites and power grids negatively. Therefore, NOAA warned operators of power plants and spacecraft to take necessary precautions.For instance, the last G5 storm-induced power outage in Sweden in 2003. Nonetheless, for the UK no disturbances have been reported yet due to the storm.

NASA declared that the storm posed no serious hazard to the astronauts on the International Space Station. However, the increased radiation resulting from heightened auroral activity could jeopardize some of NASA's satellites. Antti Pulkkinen, director of the space agency’s heliophysics science division, noted the possibility of turning off sensitive instruments if necessary. Meanwhile, the storms and solar activity are being monitored by several spacecraft.

These storms occur when the sun reaches its "solar maximum," meaning the sun is at its peak activity, completing its 11-year cycle. During this time, more sunspots appear on the sun's surface, acting like volcanoes that burst charged particles in Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs), expanding auroral activity.

Similarly, this recent G5 storm is due to moderate to strong solar flares created by a large sunspot cluster since May 8th, Wednesday.

As Dr. Greg Brown, an astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, states: “We are currently at solar maximum when the sun is at its most active and flares, sunspots, and coronal mass ejections are at their most common. While we remain at the sun’s peak, the chance of a solar storm remains quite high.”

Due to this elevated solar activity, countries further south than the North Pole, including Austria, Germany, Slovakia, Switzerland, Denmark, and Poland, along with northern parts of China and the states of Alabama and California in the US, were able to witness the northern lights. These lights are more apparent and clearer in areas with low light pollution. The period between September and mid-March, when days are shorter and nights are longer in the Northern Hemisphere, is the ideal time to observe the northern lights.

In conclusion, this rare spectacle was glimpsed throughout the UK and in parts of Europe as a result of an intense geomagnetic storm.


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