This photo of the northern lights aurora borealis was taken in Kvaløya close to Tromsø, Norway, by Bjørn Jørgensen.
January 2012 provided a spectacular display of lights (aurorae) in the northern skies.
Northern lights in Norway
Pål Brekke tells us about his experience in Norway. ‘It is truly amazing to experience the aurora. Actually you get excited each time – and it is one of nature’s great wonders. I like to quote the well-known Austrian explorer, Julius von Payer, who said: “No pencil can draw it, no colours can paint it, and no words can describe it in all its magnificence.” It is so true – it is hard to explain to anyone who has not seen the aurora. You can see strong green arcs, or curtains, with some purple areas dancing on the sky.’
‘On the 23rd of January the Sun unleashed a solar flare with a Coronal Mass Ejection, CME, which was directed right at the Earth. Thus it was expected that this CME would generate a geomagnetic storm and spark strong northern lights. I was very lucky to be at a meeting in Tromsø, the far north of Norway, during this time. Fortunately, I took my camera and a new light sensitive lens with me. What a show I experienced. On the 24th January I witnessed the most amazing aurora I have ever seen and I managed to take some great photos.’
This beautiful flare was seen by the Solar Dynamics Observatory, SDO, satellite on 23rd January 2012. The Chinese New Year certainly started with a bang!
Pål continues ‘What is probably most amazing is how fast the aurora changes shapes and colour. The entire structure can move across the sky quite rapidly and waves can ripple through it. Truly amazing and an experience of a lifetime.’
The Sun is now approaching solarmax (2013), a time of maximum activity, so there should be plenty of opportunities to see the aurora in the next few years. To forecast the aurora you need to keep an eye on the Sun as observed from satellites like SOHO, Hinode or SDO (see the Sun|trek website for more information about these solar satellites). Also check out the space weather sites, such as www.spaceweather.com and Aurora Watch UK, which send out alerts. In addition, there are a few forecasting systems out there that will tell you where the aurora oval is located at any time. The University of Svalbard has developed an online version, as well as a free Android Application (http://kho.unis.no/Forecast.htm).
If you want to read more about the Sun, Pål’s new book “Our Explosive Sun – A Visual Feast of Our Source of Light and Life” has just been published. Pål Brekke is a solar scientist and senior adviser for space science coordination at the Norwegian Space Center. He is the former ESA Deputy Project Scientist for Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
Northern Lights in Scotland
The northern lights were also seen in Scotland and the north of England.
Lucie Green, one of our Sun|trek solar guides, talks about the northern lights in this interview, and also the more problematic effects of space weather. See:
What causes the aurora?
The aurora is caused by explosions on the Sun (solar flares). Huge amounts of material (coronal mass ejections) can shoot out into space, and sometimes head towards the Earth. When they hit the Earth’s environment, energetic particles can excite molecules in the Earth’s atmosphere, mainly in the polar regions (Arctic and Antarctic). When the molecules are excited they can emit light in different colours (red and green light from oxygen and blue from nitrogen). These beautiful lights in the night sky are a sign of solar activity.
To find out more about the aurora see the main Sun|trek website.