British scientists to predict Northern Lights on the net

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The Independent Online

The ancient Norwegians thought them to be spinsters dancing and wearing white gloves that wove patterns in the sky. Others believed they were giant torches being shone by Lapp, or Sami, herdsmen searching for their reindeer. Now, people throughout Britain are to be given the chance to witness the much talked about, but little seen, northern lights.

The ancient Norwegians thought them to be spinsters dancing and wearing white gloves that wove patterns in the sky. Others believed they were giant torches being shone by Lapp, or Sami, herdsmen searching for their reindeer. Now, people throughout Britain are to be given the chance to witness the much talked about, but little seen, northern lights.

Scientists at York University believe they have developed the technology to predict when aurora borealis can next be seen over the UK.

They are creating a website "hotline" which will give advance warning of the lights now at their most visible in Britain for a decade.

The spectacular multi-coloured night sky display is usually seen only in the polar regions but a series of huge explosions on the sun, the ultimate cause of the phenomenon, means there is every chance to see the lights across the UK over the next few months.

When the display has occurred in Britain it has usually been witnessed by few people, either because it is so rare and there is no advance notice, or because of poor weather conditions.

"Now is the best time for 10 years to see the aurora in Britain," said Dr Geoff Short, a researcher at the Magnetospheric Physics Group at York. "In the coming months there will be plenty of opportunity to see the display."

The chances of seeing the northern lights has been enhanced because the sun is at the peak of an 11-year cycle of activity during which sun spots release more radiation than usual. Huge explosions on the sun, known as coronal mass ejections, emit vast lumps of plasma weighing millions of tons which hurtle towards the earth at millions of miles per hour.

These lumps slam into the earth's magnetic field, disrupting it enough to allow electrically charged particles into the earth's upper atmosphere, where they hit molecules of air. It is these molecules that give off the characteristic colours of red, green, blue, cream and yellow, and provide the breathtaking light display.

The unusual strength of the forces coming from the sun mean that the northern lights extend further south along the earth's magnetic field and are more likely to be seen at lower latitudes as well as the usual range, between 60 degrees and 75 degrees north of the equator. The lights have already appeared twice this year in the UK, once in Northamptonshire in April and again in July, though this display was obscured by bad weather.

The York scientists have created equipment that monitors the magnetic field around the earth, giving advance warning - around two hours - of the possibility of a northern lights display in the skies above Britain.

During active times, they will post an "aurora alert" on their website, www.aurorawatch.york.ac.uk and contact people who register with them by e-mail or by text messages on mobile phones.

"It's partly for our own pleasure because we don't want to miss out," admitted Dr Short. "This happens infrequently at this sort of latitude and we will be able to tell if it is going to be a big event or a very big event. The lights can happen all year round but you tend to get darker and clearer skies in winter which is why they are seen more at that time of year."

But the monitoring unit is not solely operating for the pleasure of scientists who are aching to see the northern lights. There is a serious side to the work: the technology allows the team to study the phenomenon of space weather, including solar winds, so that their impact on the Earth can be lessened.

"We are trying to understand how space weather is driven," Dr Short said. "Space storms can carry fairly large currents which can overload power sources on earth. A big space storm blacked out half of Canada in 1989. There's an industrial element to it all because everyone relies on television and mobile phones that are linked to satellites which can be affected by those storms."

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