A new, colourful change to the atmosphere

By | Science & Technology
Northern Lights credit@ AlaskaU.S.AirForce SeniorAirmanJoshuaStrangviaFlickr

The Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis usually occur in areas close to the poles, with people travelling many miles to see the glorious colours appear in the sky. Unusually, the people of Britain were treated to seeing this phenomenon last week, mainly in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the north of England although sightings were recorded as far south as Essex.

This led to social media sites booming with photos of sightings, with the colours of different brightness and magnitude littering our news feeds. We are now in an era where we can be involved in such events due to sites such as Twitter, where several profiles were updating followers with the best time and location to see the Northern Lights. The question remains, why did they occur this far south?

Northern Lights in Britain Credit @Brian Tomlinson via Flickr.com

Northern Lights Credit @Brian Tomlinson via Flickr.com

The Northern Lights occur due to charged particles in the atmosphere interacting within a magnetic field that is present most strongly around the poles. The charged particles originate from solar winds, and the phenomenon is seen when these particles collide with other atoms that are present in the atmosphere. The energy released is seen as light, and in the northern hemisphere they usually have a green colour. This is due to the frequency of light being released being in the green visible light section of the electromagnetic spectrum. As well as usually having a green colour, the shapes of these lights usually follow the pattern of the magnetic field lines. For these interactions to be seen in Britain, a geomagnetic storm will have changed the course of the charged particles, and this involves a shift in the magnetic field lines.

When the aurora is present, the lights are easier to see in the countryside where there is a reduced amount of artificial light. This is so that the brightness of the lights from streetlights and buildings leave the emitted colours at their brightest. Although they have been seen mostly in the north of the British Isles, there are chances of seeing the aurora in any part of the country, as there were some sightings in the south of England. This unusual change in the atmosphere has allowed many people the opportunity to see something they may never have had the funds or time to see.

It is evident that our climate is changing year by year, making the weather more challenging to predict. Seeing the Northern Lights in Britain is due to geomagnetic storms, another change in our atmosphere that leaves the weather unaffected. These storms have limited effects and all in all they are a welcome addition.

Northern Lights Credit @ Jonathan Combe via Flickr.com

Northern Lights Credit @ Jonathan Combe via Flickr.com

Twitter profiles such as @AuroraWatch have allowed people to have a prior notice if there is an increased chance of seeing the Northern Lights in Britain and the best places to see them. They can predict this by detecting the change in magnetic field over the British Isles. As well as this, the amount of posts and photos taken and posted on social media has allowed others to see the phenomenon via other means.

Without these sites, the locations of the Northern Lights would have remained relatively unknown. Our advancing technology allows us to both predict when and where they are going to be seen, and this has meant that people who would usually lack interest have become more involved and have gone outside to take a look. Science is becoming more popular and this is mainly due to increased exposure on sites such as Twitter, which is used daily by a large number of people.

If this becomes a regular occurrence, what other new phenomenon might we see?

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