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Aurora Borealis set for dramatic return

Other posts by  |  Sheelagh Caygill on Google+ |  January 26, 2012 | 0 Comments
A rainbow-shaped glow of lights

A rainbow-shaped glow of lights near Morpeth © Dr Adrian Jannetta

If you missed the Northern Lights stunning display this week, don’t be disappointed.

According to prominent astronomer Dr Adrian Jannetta, the lights are set to shine on in Northumberland – and indeed the North of England – in the coming weeks.

“We can’t say with any certainty when the next outburst will be.  But it will happen again in days, maybe a week. This is because the sun is becoming more active,” he told Northumberland’s leading tourism destination website.

“The frequency with which the Northern Lights appear in our skies should increase over the next 12-18 months.  This will be followed by a period of decline as the sunspot cycle winds down again.

“The event on Sunday night was over by the early hours of the morning.  They don’t last long – less than a day usually.  There was another flare on Monday which sparked huge auroras on Tuesday night – they would have been pretty dramatic from Northumberland but the weather spoiled the view.

“But the Aurora Borealis should increase in frequency as the solar maximum approaches in 2013,” he added.  “It’s not possible to predict when the sun will unleash a flare directed at the Earth, but when it happens we have a couple of days before its effects are seen as an aurora.  It’s possible to sign up to aurora alerts on various NASA websites, most notably spaceweather.com“.

While we know that the Northern Lights will reappear soon, the question is, will the weather co-operate?  According to the Met Office, from Saturday to Monday there will be clear periods at night. And further on into next week the weather could be clear too, with cold nights and some breeze.

To see the Aurora Borealis, Dr Jannetta says you must be away from street lights and have a clear view of the northern horizon.  A beach is a good bet, as is the top of a hill or a beacon.

This isn’t the first time that the lights have been seen in the North of England and the Scottish Borders. They are frequently visible when the sun is near the peak of its 11 year sunspot cycle.

Dr Adrian Janetta

Dr Adrian Jannetta with his 16″ Meade Lightbridge

“Numerous aurora were seen between 2000-2004.  And in March 1989 there was a major solar storm which led to the Northern Lights being widely seen all over the UK and Europa,” Dr Jannetta said.

“That particular solar storm induced electric currents in power lines which caused blackouts for six million people in Quebec.”

Dr Jannetta loves the Northern Lights and describes them as one of the world’s natural wonders.

“The colours – red, green, sometimes blue – can be a mesmerizing sight and the movement of the lights across the sky can appear, to me, to be elegant. It also reminds the scientist in me that we’re on a tiny planet orbiting a star whose outbursts can reach across 93 million miles of space and mess up power grids, GPS and navigation systems.

“A big solar flare such as the one observed in 1859 known as the Carrington Event, would today cause billions of pounds of damage and chaos.”

He believes humans have long been drawn to and intrigued by the Northern Lights because they are  unpredictable, weren’t at one time understood and were frightening.

“The appearance of the Northern Lights used to be unpredictable – unlike the stately movement of the stars and planets across the heavens.  Aurora have been recorded in this part of the world as far back as the 8th century,” Dr Jannetta explained.

“In the Anglo Saxon Chronicle there are descriptions of blood-red clouds and fiery dragons in the sky – it clearly terrified them.  The scientific explanation of the Northern Lights came in the 19th century when electricity and magnetism were finally understood. People are still intrigued by them – I’ve spoken to people who have this on their “Bucket List” and some are still prepared to go to great lengths to see them.”

Dr Jannetta, who teaches at Newcastle University, said the stunning arcs of green, yellow and orange visible across the skies were caused by a powerful flare which erupted from the sun last Thursday. The flare unleashed a plasma wave that supercharged the Aurora Borealis into high latitudes.

He said a plasma wave is what you get when you heat a gas so much that the electrons break away from the atoms.  “The sun is a ball of hot plasma and when it erupts with a solar flare billions of tonnes of plasma is hurled into space, travelling away like a wave which may eventually wash over the Earth.”

The Auroras occur when charged particles from the sun interact with the Earth’s atmosphere, releasing light patterns visible to the human eye in the process.

The Aurora Borealis can only be seen in Northern locations because the Earth’s magnetic field pulls the particles toward our polar regions. The glow of the Northern Lights is caused by high-energy electrons colliding with oxygen atoms and nitrogen molecules.

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