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Seeing the Northern Lights

Current Space Weather conditions can be found at the NOAA / Space Weather Prediction Center.

Here's the current auroral oval from NOAA (refresh the page to update the map)....

The current aurora oval


Below is some advice from 2012 on how to improve your chances of seeing the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) from the north of Scotland. Although more than 10 years old now, it still covers the key points reaonably well, and many of the weblinks still work. You'll also find a 1 page beginners guide in the CAG Library.

Read through the basic information below and refer to some of the listed weblinks to aid with understanding this natural phenomenon and therefore enhance your chances of seeing nature's great light show...........


Aurora - Some Basics

The aurora originates from activity on the Sun's surface that propels material in the direction of the Earth. Upon arrival, this material interacts with the Earth's invisible magnetic shield which under the right conditions produces nature's great light show around the magnetic poles. [A better & more detailed description from Dr Melanie Windridge, who has written a book on the topic, can be found on her website - http://melaniewindridge.co.uk/what-is-the-aurora/what-causes-the-aurora]

The good news is that there should be plenty of opportunities to see the aurora from the north of Scotland over the next few years (2012-2015). This is because the Sun will be at a peak in its recurring eleven year activity cycle and as a result it will frequently eject aurora generating material into space.

The material ejected from the Sun takes a few days days to travel through space to us (at a few million kilometers per hour!). Because of this travelling time it is possible to predict an enhanced chance of seeing aurora in the north of the UK as much as a day or two in advance. I personally check the website www.spaceweather.com every day or two for details of what the Sun has been doing and whether auroral displays are likely to be seen soon. As a bonus the website is updated daily with interesting astronomy/space stories and photos.

Note that there are numerous factors that affect auroral displays, so they can be somewhat unpredictable on the night. When a display is iminent check out the live data on one of the numerous websites that monitor activity eg at www.spaceweatherlive.com/enwww.solarham.net, www.auroraspy.co.uk, www.aurora-service.eu or on the left side of the www.spaceweather.com home page which has details/links on the current auroral activity.

If already outdoors with a DSLR handy take a long exposure along the northern horizon. Faint aurora can be hard to pick up with the naked eye, but a camera may capture their distinctive green colour. If aurora is seen, you might want to wait around a while in case the activity picks up leading to a brighter and more dynamic display.

Now for some useful weblinks........

Basic info on the aurora and seeing them from the UK:
www.bbc.co.uk/guides/zxdpcdm - an excellent guide produced by the BBC
http://aurorawatch.lancs.ac.uk/introduction  - aurorawatch UK www.windows2universe.org/spaceweather/basic_facts.html - basic facts about space weather

The following websites provide real time updates on the likelihood of seeing the aurora - you might want to add one (or two!) to your favourites list.......
http://aurorawatch.lancs.ac.uk/  - sign up for free aurora alerts
A measure of how far south you might be able to see the aurora from is given by the Planetary K-index (Kp value). From the north of Scotland there is a good chance of seeing aurora when the Planetary K-index (Kp value) is 5 or higher. With a clear northern horizon it possible to see aurora just above the northern horizon from Caithness and Sutherland when the Kp value is as low as 2.
A short term forecast for geomagnetic activity can be found here - www.swpc.noaa.gov/products/3-day-forecast

Detailed info about the aurora can be found here:
http://aurorawatch.lancs.ac.uk/introduction  - aurorawatch UK http://sohowww.nascom.nasa.gov/classroom/for_students.html - includes a link to a very informative video at the bottom of the webpage

Here is an extract from a CAG workshop held in September 2012 which included details on how to predict when aurora will be visible from Caithness - www.spanglefish.com/caithnessastronomygroup/documents/PredictingAurora_Basics_CAGWorkshopExtract_Sept2012.pdf


Photographing the Aurora

Interested in photographing the aurora? You don't need much more than a camera capable of taking long exposures and a tripod. Have a look at the photos below to see the sort of results you can achieve.

You'll find some useful advice at the following webpages:



Advice for Visitors Travelling North to Caithness in the Hope of Seeing the Aurora

CAG are often asked "when the best time is to travel to the far north of the UK mainland to see the Aurora?" After reading the details above, hopefully it will be obvious that it is not possible to predict this with any accuracy more than a few days in advance. Although this makes it very difficult to plan a trip north to see the aurora, there is some good news. As the Sun is coming to a peak in its activity cycle, the chances of seeing the aurora from Caithness and Sutherland from 2012 to 2015 are as good as you'll get this decade and a good display each month could be expected.

So what advice would we give potential visitors to the area? Here's a few tips:

  • the further north in the UK you are the better chance you have of seeing the aurora (weather permitting!). So Caithness and Sutherland are ideal unless you want to take a boat or plane to get nearer the magnetic north pole. They also have many scenic locations with little light pollution and low northern horizons.
  • during summertime in Caithness and Sutherland the sky barely gets dark at night. Mid May to mid August are therefore not ideal times to visit the area to see aurora (but a great time to visit for other reasons!).
  • around the spring and autumn equinoxes there is a slightly increased chance of seeing aurora due to favourable interaction of the Earth's magnetic field relative to that of the Sun at those times of year (http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2008/20mar_spring/ ). The weather also tends to be a bit more pleasant for being outdoors under the stars :-)
  • if only visiting for a few days, avoid times of the month around full moon as it makes the sky brighter and masks fainter aurora (www.moonconnection.com/moon_phases_calendar.phtml )

What if you miss out in seeing the aurora? Well, the area has so much more to offer, so if you plan other activities during your visit you'll have an enjoyable time regardless of whether the "Merry Dancers" make an appearance or not. We also have an abundance of dark skies that have little in the way of light pollution, so cloudless nights will afford some of the best views of the universe from Western Europe.

Good Luck!

Gordon Mackie, Caithness Astronomy Group

(This note was originally produced in 2012, and has been tweaked a few times since)


See below for some locally taken aurora photos....


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