The Northern Lights may be visible over parts of Scotland, Northern Ireland and the north of England and Wales tonight, after a solar flare was spotted heading to Earth.
According to the Met Office, a coronal mass ejection (CME) was seen leaving the Sun on November 2, and it should reach the Earth tonight or tomorrow.
When the charged particles from the Sun meet the Earth’s magnetosphere, it generates a geomagnetic storm that can produce stunning light shows.
Usually these displays are restricted to high-latitude regions around the Arctic and Antarctic.
But when the solar flares or coronal mass ejections are particularly strong, these shows can appear at lower latitudes.
This means that as long as the sky is cloud free and you are in a low light pollution area, you could see the Northern Lights in Scotland, Northern Ireland and more northerly parts of Wales and England this evening.
The Northern Lights may be visible over parts of Scotland, Northern Ireland and the north of England and Wales tonight, after a solar flare was spotted heading to Earth
According to the Met Office, a coronal mass ejection (CME) was seen leaving the Sun on November 2, and it should reach the Earth tonight or tomorrow
Another coronal mass ejection (CME) was observed leaving the sun on the 2nd November. Our forecasters have analysed this and are predicting an arrival at Earth later tonight or early tomorrow, as shown by our Enlil model. pic.twitter.com/FRdmhgDwlq
— Met Office Space (@MetOfficeSpace) November 3, 2021
SOLAR FLARES AND CMEs
A solar flare is a tremendous explosion on the Sun that happens when energy stored in ‘twisted’ magnetic fields (usually above sunspots) is suddenly released.
In a matter of just a few minutes they heat material to many millions of degrees and produce a burst of radiation across the electromagnetic spectrum, including from radio waves to x-rays and gamma rays.
Solar flares are different to ‘coronal mass ejections’ (CMEs), which were once thought to be initiated by solar flares.
CMEs are huge bubbles of gas threaded with magnetic field lines that are ejected from the Sun over the course of several hours.
This latest CME is expected to result in a minor to moderate event, with a 20 per cent chance there will be periods of stronger activity, the Met Office says.
‘Aurora may be visible across Scotland and Northern Ireland, perhaps parts of Northern England and North Wales if these conditions are realised, if skies are clear,’ the Met Office tweeted.
As well as more southerly light shows, a particularly strong CME could cause problems for people on the planet.
While not directly harmful to humans, they could knock out satellites, cause power outages and communications difficulties, although this isn’t expected to be large enough to have that type of impact.
It is what is known as a Cannibal type of CME, that is it sweeps up any slower CMEs that were ejected before it as it races towards the Earth.
Combined, they create a mash of strong magnetic fields and plasma that then act to generate geomagnetic storms as they hit the atmosphere.
This mashup is expected to hit at 23:00 GMT tonight, with any light shows expected on November 4 and 5.
There has been a marked increase in larger flares that can cause more southerly aurora in recent months, with the most recent on Thursday, October 28 – known as the Halloween storm.
Unfortunately, for British skygazers, that proved to be a poor display.
The increase in solar activity is due to the fact the Sun has entered the more active phase of its 11-year cycle, according to astronomers.
Every 11 years, the polarity of the Sun’s magnetic field shifts, and as it does so the forces in our star get tangled and punch through the surface – sending plasma into space as CMEs and solar flares.
The Sun moved into the active phase of its cycle in 2020, which has already resulted in an increase in flares and solar storms reaching the Earth.
It will peak around 2025, around the time the ESA Solar Orbiter is expected to fly within 26 million miles of our star.
The Met Office told MailOnline: ‘We are seeing a gradual increase in solar activity and associated space weather.
‘This is due to us moving away from solar minimum (late 2019/early 2020) and towards the next solar maximum (expected around mid-2025).
‘Over the next few years we can expect increasing solar activity, with a corresponding increase in space weather events affecting Earth and the near-Earth space environment.’
We are expecting Minor to Moderate (G1-G2) geomagnetic storming, with a 20% chance of strong (G3) storm intervals. Aurora may be visible across Scotland and Northern Ireland, perhaps parts of Northern England and North Wales if these conditions are realised, if skies are clear. pic.twitter.com/3kRoQCi2lU
— Met Office Space (@MetOfficeSpace) November 3, 2021
A solar flare is an intense burst of radiation coming from the release of magnetic energy associated with sunspots (areas that appear dark on the Sun’s surface).
Solar flares are different to CMEs, which were once thought to be initiated by solar flares. Both are types of solar storms.
NASA explains: ‘We typically see a solar flare by the photons (or light) it releases, at most every wavelength of the spectrum.
‘The primary ways we monitor flares are in x-rays and optical light. Flares are also sites where particles (electrons, protons, and heavier particles) are accelerated.
‘Flares are our solar system’s largest explosive events. They are seen as bright areas on the sun and they can last from minutes to hours.’
In the Earth’s north, the Northern Lights is officially known as the aurora borealis, while in the south it is called the aurora australis.
The Northern Lights has fascinated Earthlings for centuries, but the science behind it has not always been understood.
Earth has an invisible forcefield, the magnetosphere, that protects us from dangerous charged particles from the Sun.
The magnetosphere is the area around Earth controlled by the planet’s magnetic field.
Science expert Marty Jopson explains: ‘Whilst it shelters us, it also creates one of the most impressive phenomena on Earth – the Northern Lights.’
The Northern Lights seen over the Zapolyarnaya-2 mine of Vorkutaugol in the city of Vorkuta, northwestern Russia in April 2021
Pictured: photographer Jeanine Holowatuik posted this shot of the Northern Lights seen earlier in October 2021 over Saskatchewan, Canada
‘When the deadly solar winds meet Earth’s magnetosphere, some of the charged particles get trapped, and are propelled down the Earth’s magnetic field lines straight towards the poles.
‘And when they reach Earth, they strike atoms and molecules in our atmosphere, releasing energy in the form of light.’
Unfortunately, disruption to our magnetic field can also affect satellites in orbit, navigation systems, terrestrial power grids and data and communication networks.
‘Harmful space weather has affected Earth before, but as we become increasingly reliant on systems and technologies vulnerable to the Sun’s outbursts, future solar impacts could be even more disruptive,’ says the European Space Agency (ESA).
WHAT ARE AURORAS AND WHAT TRIGGERS THE STUNNING NATURAL DISPLAYS?
The Northern and Southern Lights are natural light spectacles triggered in our atmosphere that are also known as the ‘Auroras’.
There are two types of Aurora – Aurora Borealis, which means ‘dawn of the north’, and Aurora Australis, ‘dawn of the south.’
The displays light up when electrically charged particles from the sun enter the Earth’s atmosphere.
There are two types of Aurora – Aurora Borealis (file photo), which means ‘dawn of the north’, and Aurora Australis, ‘dawn of the south.’ The displays light up when electrically charged particles from the sun enter the Earth’s atmosphere
Usually the particles, sometimes referred to as a solar storm, are deflected by Earth’s magnetic field.
But during stronger storms they enter the atmosphere and collide with gas particles, including hydrogen and helium.
These collisions emit light. Auroral displays appear in many colours although pale green and pink are common.