The Northern Lights could be seen in the UK tonight, experts have said.
The phenomenon could be visible as far south as the north of England, Northern Ireland and Scotland.
Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) say there is a 45 per cent chance of G1-class geomagnetic storms on 5 December, when a coronal mass ejection (CME) is expected to hit Earth’s magnetic field.
CMEs are very good at producing auroras, according to spaceweather.com, so even a glancing blow could light up the Arctic Circle and beyond.
“Predicting the Northern Lights is difficult, however all of the signs are looking good for tonight with forecasters tracking a solar wind heading towards earth that is likely to cause some spectacular Northern Lights,” says Jonny Cooper, founder of Off the Map Travel.
“Not only is this great news for those travelling to the Arctic region, but the stronger the solar storm, the further south they are visible, so it is well worth those in Scotland and northern England keeping an eye on the skies tonight as well.”
Ian Ridpath from the Royal Astronomical Society, who leads northern lights trips to Norway, agrees that sightings could be possible.
“We may just get winged tonight by a CME, which is a cloud of atomic particles from the sun, although it’s not coming straight at us so might miss,” he tells The Independent. “But if it does hit us then there could be sightings of the aurora borealis in Scotland, northern England and Northern Ireland tonight and tomorrow.”
Dr Robert Massey, deputy executive director of the Royal Astronomical Society, says that spotting the lights is always uncertain, even if there’s a major solar event, but that it’s worth a look as the odds are slightly higher than normal.
“Get away from light pollution and from cities if you want the best chance of seeing them,” he says. “Go somewhere with a dark sky and unobstructed horizon.”
Massey recommends signing up for alerts with aurorawatch.lancs.ac.uk, which tracks the chances of seeing the Northern Lights in the UK.
“The lights could appear as simply a faint glow on the northern horizon or if it is a good display there might be horizontal bands and arcs, or even vertical rays,” says Ridpath. “They probably won’t appear very colourful to the eye, but a time exposure with digital camera should show them as green and red.”
However, local weather conditions could prove a fly in the ointment. “The lights occur 60 miles up and higher, so clouds will completely obscure the view,” he says.
There’s also a second chance to spot them at the end of the week, according to Ridpath.
“We will be within a stream of atomic particles flowing out through a coronal hole on the sun,” he says. “A coronal hole is a different thing from a CME, but they too cause ‘gusts’ in the so-called solar wind of particles and cause aurorae.”
In both cases the atomic particles are funnelled down the Earth’s magnetic field into a ring around the poles – it’s the particles hitting the upper atmosphere that cause the gas in the atmosphere to glow, producing the aurora, says Ridpath.