Northern Lights: will aurora borealis be visible in UK tonight, how to see next northern lights - and forecast

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Scientists at Aurora Watch UK have issued a ‘red alert’

Great news for those who were dazzled by (or slept through) last weekend’s aurora borealis: Mother Nature's light show could be coming back for an encore.

Scientists at Aurora Watch UK have issued a red alert indicating that the Northern Lights may be visible across large parts of the UK again tonight (18 May), following last weekend’s spectacular displays.

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Experts from the Space and Planetary Physics group at Lancaster University’s Department of Physics said: "Aurora is likely to be visible by eye from Scotland, northern England and Northern Ireland; possibly visible from elsewhere in the UK. Photographs of aurora are likely from anywhere in the UK."

The Met Office space weather unit predicts "enhancement to the aurora is likely into early May 18," and said that "the aurora may become visible as far south as parts of Scotland where skies are clear. Mainly background aurora conditions are expected thereafter."

Last week (10 May), the aurora borealis was visible across the entire country as solar radiation interacted with the Earth's atmosphere, producing shimmering green, pink, and purple lights in the night sky.

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Tonight could be the last display of the current storm, but the BBC reports that another solar blast is expected in two weeks when the large sunspot cluster that released energy and gas towards Earth is expected to rotate back towards us.

Scientists predict it will still be large and complex enough to produce more solar eruptions, potentially generating additional Northern Lights displays visible from the UK.

Since last Saturday, the Sun has continued emitting increased radiation, including a massive solar flare on Tuesday (14 May) that disrupted high-frequency radio communications worldwide.

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This active sunspot is not an isolated event, and the Sun is nearing "solar maximum," a peak in an 11-year cycle when activity is at its highest. This occurs when the Sun’s magnetic poles flip, creating sunspots that emit material and generate space weather.

This solar cycle, the 25th since sunspot observations began in 1755, was expected to be quiet, but scientists now say it is stronger than anticipated.

The intensity of a solar cycle is estimated by the number of sunspots, but this does not necessarily indicate how strong the resulting storms will be when they reach Earth.

The geomagnetic storm last weekend was a rare event, and the biggest since 2003. It was caused by at least five coronal mass ejections (CMEs) that reached Earth after an 18-hour journey across space.

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Once they reached Earth, charged particles interacted with Earth’s magnetosphere - which shields the planet from powerful radiation, without which life would be impossible - causing the aurora borealis.

The storm was so intense it received a G5 alert rating, the highest given by the Met Office and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and impacted global communications, power grids and GPS systems.

How to see the northern lights?

If you plan to go out aurora hunting this weekend, there are a few steps you can take to increase your chances of spotting the famous lights.

Light pollution can significantly reduce the visibility of the aurora, so you’ll want to head to rural areas away from city lights if you can - places like national parks, the countryside and coastal areas are all good spots.

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The Northern Lights are usually most visible towards the northern horizon, so find an open area with an unobstructed view to the north, and of course, clear skies are essential for viewing the aurora.

The best time to see the Northern Lights is typically between 10pm and 2am. Be prepared to wait, as the display can be unpredictable.

During last week’s displays, many people noted that their phone screens were picking out faint streaks of light in the sky and turning them into dazzling displays, even if those lights were near enough invisible to the naked eye.

Smartphone cameras, especially those with night mode or long exposure settings, can capture more light than the human eye, making even faint auroras appear brighter and more vibrant on screens.

These cameras often boost colours and contrast too, making the greens, purples and reds of the aurora stand out more than they do to the naked eye.

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