The Northern Lights are a bucket list cert for most people.  I myself am gearing up for hunting those elusive and yet oh so pretty buggers down this year. You may or may not know that this winter will be your best chance of seeing the norther lights in the next 11 years.  Yep, I kid you not, apparently this year we are at the peak of an 11 year solar cycle.  Solar activity will be at a high and so in theory the northern lights should be more visible than they have been in the last 10 years.

Along with the mrs and a few mates, I’m planning a two stage hunt.  There’s no guarantees I’ll get to see the lights, but I’m trying to give myself every opportunity.  Here’s the plan of attack.

 

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UPDATE – I ONLY FRICKIN SAW THEM!

If you want to find out about what causes the lights and what conditions are best for witnessing read on.  

If you want to see pretty pictures of the northern lights just click here

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1.  Scotland:

Ok so not the obvious choice when it comes to Northern Lights hunting, but it is possible to see them from the land of the tartan army.  My friends and I are planning to fly up to Inverness, hire a car for the week and then drive via Loch Ness, over to the Isle of Skye to spend a few days and nights standing out in the freezing cold and staring up into the heavens whilst praying for our multi-coloured friends to make an appearance.  Just this week (12/11/12) the lights were visible in Glendale on the isle of Skye.

If we’re unable to see the lights due to sodding cloud or adverse conditions it wont ruin our trip, we have plenty more planned.  As mentioned we’ll visit Loch Ness where we’ll search for nessy, Oban where I hope to partake in a little gorge walking, and Fort William where if our timing is right we’ll get to see the hogwarts express from the Harry Potter films.


View Scotland Roadtrip in a larger map

2.  Iceland:

On to the back up plan, I SHALL NOT BE DENIED!

So if Scotland fails on the northern lights front, the back up plan is Iceland the following weekend.  This time it’ll be just Esther and I.  We’ll be looking to take advantage of the current AirIceland offer where for £300 you get flights, accommodation and a Northern Lights tour one evening.  In theory this will be our best chance to see the lights as Iceland is a lot further north than the Isle of Skye.  Again there are no guarantees of seeing the lights, but with professional guides and a better location I’m hoping for at least the tiniest of sightings.

So what are these Northern Lights you’re banging on about?

Oh lord, you had to ask that didn’t you.  Well make yourself comfy, here comes the science part …

The northern lights are one of several astronomical phenomena called polar lights.  Polar lights (aurora polaris) are a natural phenomenon seen in both northern and southern hemispheres.  The Northern lights are also known as aurora borealis, and southern lights are called aurora australis.

The origin of the aurora begins on the suns sruface when solar activity ejects a cloud of gas. Scientists call the ejection of this gass cloud a coronal mass ejection (CME). If a CME reaches earth (takes about 2 to 3 days) it collides with the Earth’s magnetic field.  Upon collision a complex series of changes to the magnetic tail region occur. The changes generate currents of charged particles, which then flow along lines of magnetic force into both north and south Polar Regions. These particles are boosted in energy in Earth’s upper atmosphere, and when they collide with oxygen and nitrogen atoms, they produce dazzling auroral light.

Simple eh!?

Oh cool!  When can I see the Northern Lights?

Sadly there is no definite answer to this one.  If you live in Alaska or Greenland you should have pretty good sight of them year round, but for the rest of us we’re limited to the winter months.  We know that the best months are between October and March, that the best times are between 10pm and 2am, and that the sky has to be dark and clear.

There’s plenty of short term forecast tools available on the web, but even if they get the forecast right, all you need is a little cloud and your viewing may be ruined.

If you get to see the lights you consider yourself very very lucky.

Why is this year my best chance of seeing the Northern Lights?

Like you and I, the sun has a heart beat, except it only beats every 11 years.  This is what we know as a Solar Cycle (remember I mentioned this in my intro?).  The Solar Cycle can be measured/observed by counting the number and placement of sunspots visible on the sun. The more sunspots, the more solar flare energy is being released into space (CME’s), which means more aurora activity!

This winter 2012/2013 is the 11th year.

Video Inspiration – This is why I’m hunting the Northern Lights


Video credit – StuartWalkerPhoto

Other Resources

If you want to read up on the Northern Lights, here are just a couple of resources I found quite useful

www.gi.alaska.edu

aurorawatch.lancs.ac.uk