How can I see the Northern Lights in the UK?

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1. The experience of a lifetime

What is it about the Northern Lights that fascinates people so much? Maybe we associate them with the wild edges of the Earth, far away from civilisation, where strange unexpected phenomena are still possible. Or perhaps they remind us of our planet’s connection to the Sun and the wider solar system.

Interest in tours to places like Norway and Iceland to see the Northern Lights (or 'aurora borealis', as they are also known) has soared over the last few years. But if the conditions are right, the Northern Lights can be seen in the United Kingdom. And knowing something about the science behind them, gives you the best chance of catching a glimpse of their mysterious magical glow.

2. Secrets of hunting the aurora

Giving yourself the best chance to see the Northern Lights is all about getting a few basics right. Solar scientist Dr Lucie Green tells Carol what they are and why they matter.

Lucie Green explains the locations and conditions you'll need to see the aurora borealis.

3. Places where the aurora have been spotted

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The Northern Lights have been seen all over the UK, even as far south as Kent and Cornwall, but these sightings are rare. However, stunning images of the aurora borealis have been frequently captured in the very north of England and Scotland. But with all these locations, a view of the northern horizon is vital to glimpsing the elusive lights.

4. Heading north for the best chance

The further north you travel, the more frequent the displays of Northern Lights and the more intense are the colours and patterns. The North Pole seems to be the hub for auroral activity - but the reason for this is all down to the way energy from the Sun ends up in our atmosphere.

The elusive glow of the Northern Lights are the visible results of solar wind hurtling out of the Sun towards the Earth and crashing into our planet's magnetic field. This sends charged particles streaming towards an area around the magnetic poles where the magnetic field 'gathers', known as the auroral oval. It’s here that these charged particles can light up the night skies.

The auroral oval tends to hug tightly round the magnetic pole. But after violent bursts of solar activity, the northern auroral oval can extend further south, sparking Northern Lights displays in the UK.

Space scientists have devised a scale called the Kp index which measures the activity in the magnetic field. This scale runs from 0 to 9.

A Kp level of 3 is often all it takes for the Northern Lights to be glimpsed in the north of Scotland. In February 2014, Kp levels of nearly 7 were reported, sparking spectacular displays all across the UK, even as far south as Jersey.

Unfortunately, Kp levels are hard to predict, and can change from hour to hour. Northern Lights have been known to quickly appear out of apparently quiet conditions and disappear again into the dark.

5. Waiting for the aurora

Carol hopes to see the Northern Lights in North Scotland as the geomagnetic activity increases.

Carol gets some advice on spotting aurora from local expert Barry Stewart. He also treats her to a glimpse of the quite astounding Northern Lights displays he filmed in the Scottish town of Wick.

6. The many faces of the Northern Lights

The Northern Lights are a special sight to behold and everyone who experiences them has their own tale to tell. Sometimes people see green bands across the sky; others tell of dancing reds, blues and purples. The varying colours and patterns come from the different effects of space weather on Earth.

We know that the dazzling auroral colours manifest from charged particles clashing with gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. Depending on the gases that are hit and where they are in the atmosphere, different amounts of energy are released as different wavelengths of light. Oxygen gives off green light when it’s hit 60 miles high and red light when collisions occur 100 miles up. When the particles strike nitrogen, the sky glows with blue. But if the collision is higher up in the atmosphere the glow has a purple hue.

People have also seen different patterns in the Northern Lights, reflecting how active the charged particles are. A weak aurora often appears as a diffuse band across the sky. This is a special sight, of course. But a stong solar storm could deliver a real treat – with dancing swirls and even shimmering rays or ‘curtains’ possible.

7. Are the displays dangerous?

The Northern Lights show us the stunning effects of space weather. But solar storms can also cause big problems. Which of these do they trigger? (Image: NASA)

A total city-wide blackout

You selected

A total city-wide blackout

Correct

On a cold winter’s night in 1989, a solar storm struck down the entire Quebec power grid, leaving six million people without electricity for over 9 hours.

Erratic TV remote controls

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Erratic TV remote controls

Wrong

While solar storms can disrupt electrical sources, radio waves and magnetic fields, TV remote controls are likely to survive as they work via infrared light.

Sparks and electrocution

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Sparks and electrocution

Correct

The largest solar storm ever seen in 1859 enveloped the world in an 'electrical maelstrom'. Sparks flew at telegraph stations and operators were electrocuted.

A surge in beached whales

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A surge in beached whales

Correct

Solar storms can not only disrupt human GPS navigation systems, they can also muddle the magnetic fields used by migratory animals such as whales to orientate.