Think of the Northern Lights and you’ll probably picture an icy trip to Scandinavia, Canada or Iceland. But did you know you can catch their colourful displays in the UK (and not just in Scotland’s northernmost points)?
While the lights are relatively elusive here, it’s well worth the effort of travelling to your nearest Dark Sky Reserve (where light pollution is lower) – you could even spot them as far south as Cornwall.
Here, we take a look at what causes this phenomenon and where and when you can enjoy their splendour without setting foot on a plane.
What are the Northern Lights?
A light display that can shimmer many colours, including red, blue, yellow, green and orange, in shifting and changing shapes.
They are formed by fast-moving, electrically-charged particles that emanate from both the sun and the Earth’s atmosphere. When these particles collide they light up.
These charged particles are blown on a ‘solar wind’ towards an area of the Earth’s atmosphere known as the magnetosphere, also filled with charged particles.
The Earth’s magnetic field drives the particles towards the planet’s poles and the variety of colours is created by gases in our atmosphere. In the northern hemisphere they are called the aurora borealis and form an oval-shaped halo.
The lights in the southern hemisphere are known as the aurora australis. Scientists have found that, in most instances, the northern and southern counterparts are mirror images occuring at the same time with similar shapes and colours.
Neal Brown, a former Nasa scientist, told Telegraph Travel that the phenomenon occurs about 60 miles above the surface of the Earth. “They are storms from the sun that take roughly two days to reach Earth and interact with the Earth’s magnetic fields and its atmosphere. The solar storm is guided in along the magnetic field lines to give an electrical discharge, a bit like a neon sign, with the atoms and molecules in the Earth’s atmosphere.”
Where are you most likely to see them in the UK?
Scotland delivers the best chance. Northern Scotland lies at the same latitude as both Nunivak Island in Alaska and Stavanger in Norway, two of the world’s best spots for seeing the Northern Lights. The most isolated areas, such as the Highlands or its remote islands offer up the best conditions.
Dark Sky Reserves, or similar places free from light pollution, are best. In Scotland they include Galloway Forest Park, which the International Dark Sky Association named as the UK’s first Dark Sky Park in 2009 (it was the world’s fourth). Few people live in its 300 square miles of forest and hills, so nights are really dark. It is a 90-minute drive from Glasgow and can be reached fairly easily from central Scotland and the north of England. The nearest town, Ayr, is served by bus and rail connections. A train between Glasgow Central and Ayr takes around an hour.
Within the park, the Scotland Dark Sky Observatory is open Monday to Saturday for pre-booked visits, including stargazing evenings. Take a look at the park map.
The skies above Tomintoul and Glenlivet in Moray earned the area the accolade of Scotland’s second International Dark Sky Park, and the world’s most northerly. There’s also a Dark Sky Island in Scotland, the Isle of Coll.
Plus, there’s a Dark Sky Town in the village of Moffat in Dumfries and Galloway. Elsewhere, try Kintyre, Lochaber in the west Highlands, Assynt in the northwest Highlands or the Isle of Skye.
Where else can I see them?
There are are throughout the UK with lower light pollution. If conditions are such that the Northern Lights are visible across the country, then head to one of these. Dark Sky Reserves and Dark Sky Parks in the UK include:
- Brecon Beacons National Park, Wales
- Snowdonia National Park, Wales
- Exmoor National Park, Somerset and Devon
- Lake District National Park, Lancashire
- Northumberland National Park, Northumberland
- North York Moors National Park, Yorkshire
- Yorkshire Dales National Park, Yorkshire
- Peak District National Park, Lancashire
- Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, Wales
- South Downs National Park, Surrey
- Northumberland International Dark Sky Park
There are also a number of Dark Sky Discovery sites, including:
- Kielder Forest Observatory, Northumberland
- Wimbleball Lake, Exmoor, Somerset
- WaterWorks Nature Reserve, Lee Valley Regional Park, Essex
- Queen Elizabeth Country Park, Hampshire
- Mountain Centre, Libanus, Wales
These sites are away from the worst of light pollution, offer good sightlines of the sky and have good public access.
When can I see them?
In the UK, the nights are too light through summer, so the best chance is from September to April, between 10pm and 2am. The darker the skies, the better, so winter is ideal for clear views. But autumn and spring can also be good viewing periods.
How can I find out when the lights might appear?
AuroraWatch UK, run by Lancaster University’s Department of Physics, offers up-to-date information on this. You can sign up for alerts via Twitter, Facebook, and various made smartphone apps.
They are colour-coded from green (no significant activity) to red (aurora likely).
Am I really seeing the Northern Lights?
The light from the moon or rising sun reflected through clouds can be mistaken for the lights. AuroraWatchUK offers the following pointers: “Light reflected from the clouds is often orange, as that is the colour of many streetlights. A better guide is that if you can see stars in a region of sky, then you are not looking at cloud. On very rare occasions it may be possible to see exceedingly bright aurorae through thin clouds.”
How can I prepare?
Off the Map Travel, a tour operator offering adventurous aurora-hunting trips, offers the following advice:
- Kit yourself out properly with well insulated and waterproof clothing. Standing outside in the middle of the night for prolonged periods is not without its risks and you need to avoid the dangers of hypothermia
- Use a red torch to find your way around – bright lights from standard torches will prevent you from best appreciating the lights if they do appear.
- Take a camera. But don't spend the whole time behind your camera – just appreciate the sight with the naked eye.