As many of you know, Aurora Borealis is “a natural light display in the sky (from the Latin word aurora, “sunrise” or the Roman goddess of dawn), predominantly seen in the high latitude (Arctic and Antarctic) regions. Auroras are caused by charged particles, mainly electrons and protons, entering the atmosphere from above causing ionisation and excitation of atmospheric constituents, and consequent optical emissions. Incident protons can also produce emissions as hydrogen atoms after gaining an electron from the atmosphere. (from Wikipedia) They’re also called ‘Northern Lights’.
On March 17th 2015, even the Met Office in UK warned us there were good chances to see one of them. K-index was above 8 (quite rare!) and I wasn’t going to miss this chance. My husband, who was off all day and had driven me down the Lakes for a tour, declined to follow me in my aurora-hunt. I was out about an hour from about 22.40 to 23.40 pm, but it took me half an hour to find a spot in West Cumbria where the light pollution was quite non-existent. Did I see them? Yes I did, but I felt hugely disappointed.
Why? Because I just saw a faint greenish and whiteish glow that in my mind was like a ‘travesty’ of a northern light. Truth is I had many expectations about it, this belief had been built up after looking at hundreds of professional videos and pictures in the last three years.
So I decided to list five things you shouldn’t expect from northern lights sightings.
1) They don’t appear where you expect them to. Even though a few websites claims they are making ‘aurora forecasts’, what’s visible from satellites and space not necessarily is the same thing you’re getting from the ground. In the middle there can be fog and clouds, this neutralising any attempt made to see them, even if you’re far from any city or light pollution. They also move so quickly that you can see them in a spot and someone staring at the sky just 50 miles further and at the same latitude can’t. However, a good website to just have an idea when they ‘could’ be visible in UK is this one http://aurorawatch.lancs.ac.uk/
2) Often they don’t appear when they’re supposed to… Even with a huge K index on the night of March 17th, there were plenty of people staring at a clear sky for an hour and nothing appeared. Maybe northern lights appeared after people left…. 😛
3) The notion that the more northern you travel the better it is can be deceiving. I lived two years in the Highlands of Scotland, one year on the North Sea in Caithness and if I think how many times I went out hoping to see the northern lights… and I never did!! So if you’re travelling up there, Iceland or Scandinavia, for one week or two and you don’t see them, don’t get depressed.
4) They are not as they appear in pictures. That is why I was so disappointed… I was expecting kind of amazing rainbow… not kind of ghostly aurora.. oh well. Naked eye doesn’t perceive all the colours of the most powerful cameras out there, that is why they are different in videos and pictures. Furthermore, it take a while to our human eyes to get used to the total darkness, therefore you could have them in front of you and you don’t see them until later.
5) There’s never any guarantee they will appear at all. No matter what they say in those touristic tours, chance to see them is slim. Tourist operators have no power over the sun electromagnetic field! Furthermore.. I also noticed that it is easier to have a higher planetary K-index during the winter, not in the summer, no idea why because I’m not a scientist.
BBC links to articles reporting the sightings, with pictures attached, of March 17th 2015.
Leaving you with the fabulous timelapse about the northern light display in Caithness, filmed by photographer and astronomer Maciej Winiarczyk: