Northern Lights could be visible across UK tonight as scientists issue amber alert

People watching the aurora borealis, commonly known as the northern lights, on May 10, 2024 in Whitley Bay, England
People watching the aurora borealis, commonly known as the northern lights, on May 10, 2024 in Whitley Bay, England -Credit:2024 Getty Images

An amber alert for the possibility of witnessing the Northern Lights across the UK has been issued by scientists, with the app Aurorawatch UK predicting a good chance of visibility due to intense geomagnetic activity from the Sun. The alert suggests that the aurora borealis is "likely to be visible by eye from Scotland, northern England and Northern Ireland; and possibly visible from elsewhere in the UK".

Last Friday night, the natural light show was seen across the entire UK, even as far south as the southern regions. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) attributed the widespread visibility to an "extreme" geomagnetic storm.

While tonight's display may not match the intensity of last weekend's, it's still expected to be a sight worth seeing, particularly after 11pm and potentially up until about 2am when darkness is at its peak. For the best viewing experience, Chris Snell, a Met Office meteorologist, recommends seeking out areas free from light pollution and using a quality camera.

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He said the best chance of seeing the lights is away from street lights and areas with lots of light pollution. "Also, at this time of year, we are fighting the shorter length of nights, so it is unlikely that they will be visible until around 10.30pm or 11 o'clock when it gets really dark," he said.

An extreme G5 geomagnetic storm, the highest level of solar disturbance, struck Earth on Thursday, caused by a "large, complex" sunspot cluster 17 times wider than Earth, as per NOAA's findings. The last occurrence of such a potent G5 storm was over two decades ago in October 2003, which led to power disruptions in Sweden, explained Professor Carole Haswell on BBC Radio 4 Today Programme this Saturday morning.

Prof Haswell, who leads the astronomy department at the Open University, detailed: "A lot of the satellites communicate using radio signals and all of these charged particles speeding around disrupt radio signals, particularly GPS which is used by planes can be disrupted so it can cause navigation problems, it can cause outages with satellites, it can bring down power systems. The last big G5 storm caused a power outage in Sweden and I haven't heard of anything happening this time yet, so hopefully people have designed in sort of redundancies into their systems so that they can actually weather this sort of space weather."

Meanwhile, the Energy Networks Association reassured via a spokesperson to PA news agency that the UK's electricity network was functioning normally on Saturday morning amid the solar storm. Additionally, Prof Haswell shed light on the aurora's varying hues, noting: "Green comes from oxygen which is about 80 to 250 miles above the earth's surface."

"The purple, blue and pink comes from nitrogen and when you get a very strong aurora sometimes you see a sort of scarlet red, and that comes from oxygen which is higher in the earth's atmosphere, at an altitude of about 180 miles."

Auroras are a spectacular celestial display caused by collisions between electrically charged particles released from the sun that enter the Earth's atmosphere and collide with gases such as oxygen and nitrogen. The lights are seen around the magnetic poles of the northern and southern hemispheres.

When there's a strong geomagnetic storm, these lights can often be seen further south than usual, which is why occasionally, even those in the UK are treated to this extraordinary light show.

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