Monday, 24 February 2014

The Search for an Aurora

These are both worrying times for those of us who would love to see the northern lights.  It's not that we haven't ever seen them - we were lucky enough to experience a dazzling display here about twelve years or so ago, when the whole sky was filled with curtains of moving light.  It's just that, for those of us who are getting old, and know that the aurora is at its peak with the present maximum sunspot activity, which only happens every eleven years or so, we'd like to see them one more time.

Part of the problem has been the rotten aurora-watching weather, with clouds firmly across the sky whenever there's been an alert - which there was again last night.  The other is that we are very dependent on the aurora forecasting sites.  The one above is the record over the last 24 hours from Aurorawatch, based at the University of Lancaster.  At one time they kept a magnetometer in Scotland, which gave predictions which were fairly accurate for us, but since they moved their activities to Lancaster their predictions have been less useful.

Recently, however, the website Cumbernauld Weather, working with Aurorawatch, has developed a magnetometer and has put its readings on line.  The above display shows their readings for the same period and, as can be seen, they're very different.  This makes one realise that the aurora is a very localised phenomenon, and that one's chances of seeing it are based on a willingness, on any clear night, to go out frequently and have a look.

To help to overcome the problem, we've set up a local group who are alerted when there's a warning.  Our most valuable members are those who live on the north coast, who have the best chance of seeing the northern lights.

A broader prediction is provided by sites like this one, at the University of Alaska Geophysical Institute, here.  Last night it showed a '4', with the green line, the southern limit of visible aurora activity, well down over northern Scotland.

There's plenty of choice of sites.  Another interesting one is TESIS, whose data is based on instruments developed by the Lebedev Physical Institute of the Russian Academy of Science, and launched aboard the Russian spacecraft CORONAS-PHOTON in January 30, 2009.  Their results for the last 24 hours are shown above.

We're running out of time.  With the day lengthening, with auroras very difficult to see during the short summer nights, and with sunspot activity falling away by next winter, it's possibly a case of now or never.


  1. The is an observatory based on Mull that also publishing a magnetometer which can be seen here: I have found this to also be much more reliable than the Lancaster site.

  2. Many thanks, Andrew - that's very useful. Jon

  3. Thank you, Jon, for the Tesis link, and Andrew for the Mull one. A very frustrating solar maximum. Two auroras visible here in Yorkshire in the past week, but dedication to the point of obsession seems to be needed. Also, it seems Aurorawatch shows different data where you are, as you've had amber alerts when none have been shown or notified down here. As for Spaceweather, it seems that despite their optimism, only CMEs from sunspots that have travelled at least halfway across the Sun's surface turn out to be geoeffective.

  4. Another useful link is this one which has a lot of information from different sources in one place, you will find some good news articles on solar activity here too like todays X4.9 solar flare.

  5. Many thanks for comments. As far as I can remember, we've only had one amber alert from AuroraWatch in the recent past. And thanks, Andrew, for another useful website. Jon