How to see the Northern Lights in Britain

In the first of our four-part night sky series, BBC Sky At Night Magazine's Kieron Allen explains how and where you can spot this incredible phenomenon in the British Isles and how to predict a show. 

Northern Lights with a shooting star and silhouettes (Aurora Borealis)

When activity on the Sun is particularly violent, some of the material ejected from our star can penetrate Earth’s atmosphere and dazzle us with one of nature’s most spectacular events – the aurora. 

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Known as the aurora australis in the southern hemisphere and the aurora borealis in the north, in the UK, the celestial light show we are sometimes privy to is more commonly called the Northern Lights.

Increasingly, the Northern Lights have been witnessed further and further south – earlier this year there were even reports of sightings in Essex.

But to play it safe it’s best head as far north as possible if you want to spot this celestial display – think Northumberland or the Scottish highlands.

KEY FACTORS

Cloud cover is an important concern. A cloudy night will completely ruin a display, so check the weather forecast regularly. Light pollution is another major factor, so head to a dark sky site to be in with the best chance. Galloway Forest in Scotland, Northumberland National Park and the Isle of Coll are all dark sky sites recognized by the International Dark-Sky Association.

Orientation is important too, it’s imperative that you have a view of the northern horizon.

USEFUL TOOLS

The biggest difficulty in witnessing the aurora is knowing when it’s going to take place. The Sun is an unpredictable beast but by monitoring any significant outbursts it’s possible to get an idea of where and when a significant bout of auroral activity will occur. Websites like Aurora Watch  allow you to monitor geomagnetic activity in real time and will tell you when the Northern Lights are likely to be visible from the UK. NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory is also constantly studying the Sun’s activity, this is a great visual tool and can be used to predict an auroral display on Earth.

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But this is not an exact science. There is an element of luck in spotting a great display and the aurora changes by the second. As long as you follow these basic rules however, you certainly stand a good chance of experiencing one of nature’s most exciting events.