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The northern lights have long captured the awe and imagination of explorers, and today are being sought out more and more by the everyday traveller. Although Scandinavia, Iceland and Canada are some of the more typical destinations for experiencing the lights in person, fewer people know that the lights have actually been seen throughout the UK – even as far south as Kent and Cornwall!

The Science

Understanding the science behind the northern lights (or aurora borealis as they are otherwise known) is the first step to knowing where to find them. The luminous dancing lights of the aurora are caused by charged solar particles interacting with the Earth’s magnetic fields. At the magnetic North Pole and South Pole these particles can enter the Earth’s atmosphere, where they collide with gas particles and cause the characteristic glow. Auroras are typically green due to collisions with oxygen particles, but ‘exciting’ different atmospheric gases can produce a blue, violet, yellow, or even red colour. As these reactions occur at the magnetic poles this is why auroras are most likely to be seen in Scotland and the northernmost parts of the UK.

The northern lights are best viewed away from light pollution, on long, dark nights and when the skies are clear and free of clouds.  For these reasons the lights are most visible in the countryside in the autumn and winter seasons. Another essential rule is to ensure that wherever they are being viewed from there is an unobstructed view over the northern horizon, where the light will be coming from.

Scotland

Euan Mcintosh - Belhaven Bay, Scotland

Scotland remains the best place to see the northern lights in the UK, given its closer proximity to the North Pole. The most likely places to see the spectacle are the Scottish Highlands and Scottish Isles. Northern Scotland happens to lie at the same latitude as Nunivak Island in Alaska and Stavanger in Norway, two of the best known locations in the world from which to view the northern lights. The isolation of the Highlands and remote Isles from sources of light pollution makes them ideal (and stunning) locations from which to view auroras, which are seen almost regularly from some spots. 70% of Scotland is remote rural land, making a number of areas highly suitable for spotting auroras. Visit Scotland lists some of the best locations below:

  • Shetland, Orkney and Caithness
  • Aberdeenshire and the Moray Coast
  • Lewis, Harris and the most northerly tip of Skye
  • The Cairngorms
  • Galloway Forest Park
  • Rannoch Moor and Perthshire
  • Angus and the coast of Fife
  • Calton Hill or Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh

England and Wales

Kris Williams – Black Point, Wales

When there is a major solar storm charged solar particles can penetrate the Earth’s atmosphere at lower latitudes, which is why auroras can only be seen in the south of the UK after one of these strong geomagnetic events. 

The Lake District is one of the more likely regions from which to witness the marvel, with Derwentwater near Keswick being a particular hot spot for aurora enthusiasts. The calm, still lake waters are also perfect for photography purposes. Further east Northumberland county is home to the darkest skies in England, so even if you don’t spot the lights you’ll still be likely to see the Milky Way and even the Andromeda galaxy on a clear night.

In the south viewings are less likely, but the characteristic green glow has been spotted in some of the south west’s rural regions such as Exmoor National Park in Devon and southernmost parts of the Cornish coastline. In Wales the lights have appeared over Brecon Beacons and Anglesey in the past, but sightings are rare as in southern England and only appear after a particularly strong geomagnetic event.

Northern Ireland

Philip McErlean – Groomsport, Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland the aurora is best viewed from the Antrim coastline, which enjoys a clear view of the northern horizon over the Malin Sea. The hexagonal rock formation of Giant’s Causeway, which sits at the perfect site on the coastline to view an unobstructed northern horizon, has long been a popular destination for photographers to capture auroras. Further along the shore the ruins of Dunluce castle and Downhill Demesne could also offer excellent photo opportunities against the backdrop of the lights.

In summary...

Brian Tomlinson – Milton Keynes, England

The closer to the North Pole that you are the more likely you will be to spot the northern lights, but if you live further south and don’t want to travel there may be opportunities to experience the magical sight much closer to home. To know when the lights might be coming to you Lancaster University’s Aurora Watch is a very useful resource. The website monitors current levels of geomagnetic activity, while their Twitter page also releases alerts for possible aurora sightings in the UK. Happy hunting!

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