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11th May 2024

What are the Northern Lights and why are they visible in the UK

Charlie Herbert

what causes the northern lights

The UK is experiencing a very rare event

In the last 24 hours, your social media feed has probably been full of pictures of the Northern Lights after the UK was treated to the incredible spectacle on Friday night.

If you missed the lights, also called the aurora borealis, then fear not as you they are set to be visible across the UK tonight (May 11) as well.

But how do they appear in the sky and why are they suddenly visible in Britain?

What causes the Northern Lights?

One of the most incredible spectacles the natural world has to offer, the aurora borealis, commonly known as the Northern Lights, occur when electrically-charged particles are given off by solar storms and eventually collide with the earth’s atmosphere.

Increased solar flare activity causes coronal mass ejections (CMEs), sending out electrically charged particles from the sun which become trapped in by the Earth’s magnetic field.

Once trapped, the particles then heat up atoms in the Earth’s atmosphere by smashing into them, resulting in the bright colours we know as the Northern Lights.

Why are the lights visible in the UK at the moment?

The aurora are usually visible from countries closest to the Arctic, such as Canada, Iceland and Norway.

But when there is particularly large amount of solar activity, they can be visible further south than usual – such as from northern parts of the UK.

At the moment though, we’re experiencing the biggest solar storm in two decades, as four CMEs head towards Earth.

The geomagnetic event that hit Earth on Friday night was classed as a G5 Extreme Solar Storm by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the first time this has happened since October 2003.

So, the extreme nature of these geomagnetic storms means that we’re in the rare scenario where the aurora could be seen from as far south as London.

The scale of the storms means they’ll persist into Saturday night, when the Northern Lights are set to be visible again.

Conditions are predicted to be similar to Friday evening, with the Met Office saying there is a “good chance of aurora sightings” tonight.

For tips about how to see the lights and increase your chances of getting the best view, click here.

Related links:

Nasa shares video of what it’s like to fall into a black hole

Easyjet pilot does 360 in mid-air so passengers can enjoy Northern Lights

Cambridge scientist discovers signs of alien life

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