Highly unusual ‘solar weather’ means conditions are ripe for seeing the aurora borealis light up the skies on Thursday
The northern lights could be visible across the UK tonight in what the British Geological Survey has described as the best chance to see the elusive natural wonder in years.
A strong geomagnetic storm is heading in the direction of the Earth and is expected to hit on Thursday, meaning that by nightfall, those able to find clear, dark skies are in with a chance of witnessing the multi-coloured light show, which occurs when charged particles collide with our atmosphere.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve had the right ‘solar weather’ for this to occur,” says Alan Thomson, head of geomagnetism at the British Geological Survey. “The sun goes through 11-year cycles of activity and we’re at the peak of that, so now really is the best time in years to see the northern lights.”
The solar flare that could cause this peak in activity exploded from the sun’s surface at approximately 6.30pm on Tuesday, prompting the NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center to announce they are expecting strong geomagnetic storm conditions to occur on Earth over the next two days.
Professor Farideh Honary, founder of the AuroraWatch UK project at Lancaster University, says although the arrival of the storm is currently delayed, she expects that by Thursday evening the aurora will be visible.
“In the midlands and, obviously, in Scotland, you’ll have a better chance,” she says. “I would say if you’re in the north, it’s worth going out and taking your camera. If you keep an eye on our website, we will alert you if the conditions are right – just watch for our signal.”
Robert Massey, Deputy Executive Secretary of the Royal Astronomical Society also says it is definitely worth looking out. “Unpredictable as it is, at least you don’t need to invest in any equipment other than a coat and a hat.”
Of course, weather conditions play a huge role in the visibility of the aurora. According to the Met Office the best chances of seeing the aurora are to the north of a line from Tyneside across to the north coast of northern Ireland, but it may be visible further south. As for the cloud cover, eastern Scotland and north east England are expected to see the best of any clear skies although there will be some breaks in more western areas.
While it is difficult to predict the best time to watch, BBC 2’s Stargazing Live says it will most likely be visible from around 00.30am until 3am this morning.
As for whether the northern lights could be visible from London, Thomson says it’s unlikely … “but it is possible.”