Our Northern Lights Blog
Sunspot numbers are increasing, solar flares and coronal mass ejections are becoming a near daily occurrence, the aurora borealis is frequently being observed at lower latitudes like in the UK, this can only mean one thing… We are reaching solar maximum!
I lived in northern Finland for 8 months and I’ve lived in the Arctic Circle for many years in total and I often get asked, “When is the best time to see the northern lights in the Arctic Circle?” and my answer is normally, “anytime, as long as the sky is clear and it’s dark.” This is 100% true, if you’re in the aurora zone – the region around the Earth’s poles where the aurora is more frequently observed – you’re automatically in the best place to see the aurora, even if solar activity is low.
However, if somebody asked me the question, “When is the BEST time to see the northern lights in the Arctic Circle?” Then I would say, “Easy, during solar maximum.” The next question to be asked would most likely be, “But Matt, when is solar maximum?” The answer to that is quite simple…
The Sun, our host star, goes through a period of activity where it reaches a peak every 11 years. During this peak, we see an increased number of sunspots on the Sun which in turn release more solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CME’s), if these explosions on the surface of the Sun are Earth directed then the material that is released will reach the Earth in a few days and generate displays of the northern lights in the Earth’s atmosphere.
The reason the Sun reaches this peak in activity is because its magnetic fields become increasingly more tangled and entwined. They are generated by the motion of the material the Sun is made up of, we call it a plasma, a superheated gas. There comes a point in the cycle where these magnetic fields unravel and that is when the activity calms down and we head towards solar minimum.
The previous peak was a strange one, but it’s widely accepted that it peaked around 2014, which should make the next solar maximum around 2025… But it seems the Sun has a surprise in store. In the last 12 months there has been a dramatic increase in activity from the Sun and many strong geomagnetic storms. This has caused scientists to revaluate predictions, and many have concluded that solar maximum is in-fact now!
What does this mean for you and your chances of seeing the aurora borealis? Well, it’s quite simple, if you want to see the northern lights, these next 12 months or this upcoming aurora season is your best chance of seeing these magical dancing lights above your head that have inspired humans for millennia. The number of sunspots on the surface of the sun are at their highest since 2014, geomagnetic storms are becoming much more frequent. If you want to see the aurora like in the viral videos on social media, now is the time.
And of course, travelling to the Arctic Circle to a destination offered by The Aurora Zone isn’t all about the aurora, there are so many activities to do once you get there and if I’m being honest, these were my favourite part of living in the Arctic. Being pulled through the frozen Arctic forests by huskies is an experience I’ll never forget. The excitement of the dogs as their barks echo through the forest, the freezing air nipping at your face, the feeling of taking part in a mode of transport that has been used in the Arctic for generations is extraordinary. Add to that snowshoeing, snowmobiling, cosy evenings around log fires in purpose built kotas (Arctic forest huts), these next 12 months are the best time to create a memory that will last a lifetime.
Image Credit: Anthony Oberlin
May 2023 is set to be an exciting month for astronomy enthusiasts around the world, with several astronomical events scheduled to occur during this time. From meteor showers to planetary alignments, let's take a closer look at what we can expect to see in the skies this May.
May is the month where we no longer see aurora in the northern hemisphere due to more hours of daylight. Our locations in northern Scandinavia will soon be bathing in 24 hours of sunlight as Spring finally arrives for them. Aurora season starts again in mid-August when the autumnal blanket of colour covers the northern hemisphere.
On May 6th, the Eta Aquarids meteor shower will reach its peak. This meteor shower is created by the debris left behind by Halley's Comet, which passes through Earth's atmosphere each year. This year, the Eta Aquarids will be visible in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, with the best viewing conditions occurring after midnight. During the peak, skywatchers can expect to see up to 30 meteors per hour, streaking across the sky at speeds of up to 148,000 miles per hour.
Later in the month, on May 26th, there will be a total lunar eclipse visible from parts of North and South America, Asia, Australia, and the Pacific. During a lunar eclipse, the Earth passes between the Sun and the Moon, casting a reddish hue on the Moon's surface. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as a "blood moon" and is a stunning sight to behold.
In conclusion, May 2023 is shaping up to be an exciting month for astronomy enthusiasts, with several celestial events scheduled to occur. Whether you're interested in meteor showers, planetary transits, or deep-sky objects, there's something for everyone to enjoy this May. So, mark your calendars, grab your telescopes, and get ready to explore the wonders of the universe.
We often get asked a great question. Is the Earth the only planet that has auroras? We put that question to our resident astronomer, Matt.
No, we are absolutely not the only planet to see aurora, similar atmospheric displays have been observed on all planets except Mercury due to its close proximity to the Sun.
Auroras occur in the atmosphere of the Earth because we have a strong magnetic field and the interaction between magnetically charged particles on the solar wind and gaseous molecules in our atmosphere. We see auroras on planets, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune from pretty much the same processes. The magnetic and atmospheric dynamics of all these planets are different so some have stronger auroras than others.
Jupiter's auroras are particularly striking and are much larger and more intense than those on Earth. They are caused by charged particles from the planet's magnetosphere colliding with the atmosphere near the poles. Jupiter’s magnetic field is 20,000 times stronger than the Earth’s.
Ultraviolet Aurora on Jupiter overlayed onto Hubble – Credit NASA
Saturn's auroras are also caused by interactions between charged particles and the planet's atmosphere, but they are less intense than those on Jupiter due to it having a weaker magnetic field.
Ultraviolet Aurora on Saturn overlayed onto Hubble – Credit NASA
Uranus and Neptune have weaker auroras than Jupiter and Saturn, and their auroras are thought to be caused by interactions between the planet's magnetic field and the solar wind. These planets are 1.8 and 2.8 billion miles from the Sun respectively, so it comes as no surprise that auroras here are weak and infrequent.
Aurora on Uranus – Credit NASA/ESA
Excitingly, auroras on Mars have only recently been photographed for the first time by the NASA MAVEN mission In 2018. Mars' auroras are thought to be caused by interactions between the solar wind and the localized magnetic fields on the planet's surface. Unlike Earth's auroras, which occur primarily at the polar regions, Mars' auroras can occur at lower latitudes, sometimes as far south as 30 degrees.
Aurora on Mars – Credit EMM/EMUS
So, auroras in some forms have been observed on 7 out of the 8 planets in our solar system. What makes ours special is we can observe ours with the naked eye and it’s much easier and safer to travel to our aurora zone than it is to Jupiter’s or Saturn’s.
What are coronal holes?
Coronal holes are regions on the Sun's surface where the corona, the outermost layer of the Sun's atmosphere, appears darker and cooler than its surroundings. These areas are characterized by low-density plasma (the matter the Sun is made up of) and are a common feature of the Sun's magnetic field.
Coronal Hole - NASA SDO
Coronal holes are believed to be the source of high-speed solar wind particles that are constantly emitted into space. When the Sun's magnetic field lines in these regions open-up, they allow charged particles to stream out from the corona and into space. These charged particles, mostly electrons and protons, make up the solar wind.
Coronal holes can vary in size and location on the Sun's surface. They tend to be larger and more frequent near the solar poles, where the magnetic field lines are more open and less tightly packed. The size and frequency of coronal holes are also linked to the solar cycle, which follows an 11-year pattern of magnetic activity and sunspot activity.
When a coronal hole is facing the Earth, we can expect to experience increased geomagnetic activity within 2-3 days of the hole rotating onto the Earth facing side of the Sun. Increased geomagnetic activity is another term for increased potential of seeing the northern lights. Due to the increase in the solar wind speed, more charged particles within the solar wind will enter the atmosphere of the Earth, they will then react with oxygen and nitrogen molecules in the atmosphere and create the aurora borealis.
Image Credit - Gaute Bruvik and Visit Norway
So, if you spot a coronal hole on one of the many space weather warning websites, start getting excited.
Despite being relatively cool compared to their surroundings, coronal holes are still extremely hot, with temperatures in the range of 1 to 2 million degrees Celsius. This is because the temperature of the corona is not determined by its density, but by the activity of the Sun's magnetic field.
Scientists study coronal holes to better understand the Sun's magnetic field and its impact on the Earth and the rest of the solar system. By analysing the solar wind particles emitted from coronal holes, researchers can gain insight into the Sun's magnetic activity and its effects on the Earth's environment, including the formation of auroras and the impact of solar storms on communication and power systems.
SPECTACULAR NORTHERN LIGHTS DISPLAYS IN MARCH
The Northern Lights have made the headlines throughout February and March this year, with spectacular displays observed at our holiday destinations in the Arctic Circle.
The displays were so strong, they were even seen on the horizon across the UK.
But did we know this was going to happen and why?
Credit - Peter Forister
A Review From Onboard The MS Quest
One of our most recently launched trips, onboard the MS Quest, where you'll go whale watching, cruise through Arctic Fjords, and hunting for the Northern Lights. Alex, a member of our Northern Lights Travel Expert team, has just got back from embarking on the maiden voyage and wrote this fantastic review of her time onboard. Check it out for yourself here.
An Interview with Photographer Owen Humphreys
I have been speaking to Press Association photographer Owen Humphreys about his love for the Northern Lights. Owen has been taking photos of the Northern Lights for nearly 10 years, ever since his first sighting of them over Whitley Bay in the North East of England. Here, he shares why he loves the Aurora Borealis, how he made a career as a photographer and shares his best tips and tricks for any Northern Lights enthusiasts.
Space weather is always changing and this week scientists from Stanford University have published a paper confirming, as suspected, that there is more than the 11-year solar cycle.
An Interview with Photographer Paul Haworth
I have been speaking to photographer Paul Haworth about how the Northern Lights became his personal obsession. Paul started out taking photos of the Aurora in July 2020, utilising his degree in Astronomy, he wanted to spend his time out in Senja on this trip to focus entirely on photographing the Northern Lights.
What’s it like living under the Northern Lights?
I’m Matt Robinson and I am very lucky to have lived under the Northern Lights for many years. I’m an astronomer and astro-photographer who has spent many years within the Arctic Circle working for the Aurora Zone.
But what is it like?
How does it feel to walk outside your door and the Northern Lights are displaying right above you?
Let me tell you…