Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Aurora Borealis

Photo: Bob Rooney

Ah yes, the Northern Lights - those beautiful, ephemeral and startling colours that light up the night sky in the far north, usually in the depths of winter when the earth is covered in snow and ice. I can only speak theoretically about “the Lights”, as they are known, since I’ve not yet managed to be far enough north at just the right time in just the right place to experience them. Yet. A jaunt to the Scottish Highlands next week might - just might - give me a chance...This video was taken in Sweden

Lights Over Lapland Photo Expedition video of CME impact on 1-24-2012 from Lights Over Lapland on Vimeo.

In general, the further north you go (or south - the equivalent southern hemisphere phenomena is known as Aurora Australis. Never seen that either) the better are your chances of seeing this eerie and lovely spectacle. You also need to be away from big towns and cities, because their artificial night lights can prevent a good viewing. The same is so of a full moon. So: choose the depths of winter, travel as far north as possible, travel as far away from civilisation as possible, choose a dark moonless night...and still you may not see the Aurora.

Latest activity?
And what are they, exactly? I’ve looked it up, and I still can’t really tell you. They are caused by astronomical activity of some kind, I think to do with sun spot activity. Charged particles are thrown out by the sun, and drawn into the earth’s magnetic fields at the two poles. Or something like that. This Scienceblog gives a fairly clear seems that the earth’s atmosphere is protecting us from the flares of radiation that the sun sends out.

In fact, the Lights’ occurrence is not confined to night time - it’s just that you can’t see them in the daytime because of the sun’s light. They also, rather mysteriously, occur in a twelve year cycle of non-activity and (relative) activity - and this winter is the active peak of the cycle.

With my journey north coming up, I have been keen to track the Lights’ activity, and the Spaceweather site has quite a lot of information - though usually just after the event, rather than before. It seems that 14th February was a lively night. And I quote:

Happy Valentine's Day
"On several occasions the sky was full of auroras from horizon to horizon," says photographer and aurora tour guide Chad Blakley of Abisko National Park, Sweden. "We had many happy couples celebrating with us tonight. Most of our guests agreed that it was the best Valentine's day that they had ever shared together."
And how about this breaking news:
Update: Geomagnetic activity intensified even more on Feb. 15th when the interplanetary magnetic field (IMF) near Earth tilted south, opening a crack in Earth's magnetic field. Solar wind poured in and fueled a G1-class geomagnetic storm, now subsiding.

I’m not sure what that means, but it does sound exciting.

When looking for some stunning images of the lights, I learnt that

Jim Henderson, 62, has witnessed 350 aurora displays and seen some of the most impressive lights close to his rural Scotland home. Amazingly, he has only ever had to travel more than a few miles from his cottage 25 miles west of Aberdeen to capture the dancing beams.

See Jim’s spectacular pictures at: The Daily Mail Online The beautiful red one was taken on 21st January 2012.

Hmmmm.....Aberdeen. Perhaps Aberdeen should go on the itinerary....

The Aurora from TSO Photography on Vimeo.

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