The aurora season has started with some incredible displays of gorgeous lights, I know, I have just returned from Iceland where autumn arrives earlier than here in the UK. As the days are getting progressively shorter and the first chill descends the night-air; its time to look skywards and wait in anticipation for the night-sky to rage in a colour fest, green, pink, magenta and red waves of light that illuminate the clear, frosty darkness. They appear suddenly, dance across the inky-black sky in a dazzling ballet of shimmering light, only to disappear as abruptly as they came.
The northern lights are usually best seen in between October – March, far away from artificial light, beneath the aurora oval which usually circles the Earth between 60o– 70o of latitude. The intensity of luminescence is inextricably linked to sun-spot activity that has a natural rhythm. The best time to witness the northern lights is at the height of the sun-spot cycle which happens every 11-years and is next due to peak in 2024. While this may be the optimum time to view them, there will be a good chance to experience this amazing phenomenon in the years building up to its maxima.
Experiencing the northern lights is to experience an ethereal sight. Their shape and patterns change by the moment and they really do appear to be dancing curtains of light that sweep across the sky. No two nights are ever the same and no two auroras ever alike. Images you see of the northern lights are moments, frozen in time of an event that may be very different seconds later. A performance that can be enjoyed every night they appear, often for hours at a time, and you’ll never tire of this incredible experience.
There are many charming myths and folk-lore legends surrounding the northern lights phenomenon, many claiming them to be Spirits of ancestors or messages from the heavens. The scientific explanation, as is so often the case, is far less mysterious and enchanting but enlightening and interesting nonetheless. The northern lights or aurora borealis are named after the Latin phrase meaning ‘northern dawn’ and are caused by solar winds interacting with the Earth’s ionosphere.
Most of these winds, consisting of charged solar particles and sent Earthwards by solar flares or explosions, simply pass the Earth by and disappear into space. However, some do enter the atmosphere at its weaker polar-points where they collide with atoms and molecules that absorb the particles energy. In order to return to their ‘normal’ state these atoms and molecules emit photons, or light particles, giving us the phenomenon of the northern lights.