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Rare Aurora Borealis Lights Up the UK Sky Amidst Major Solar Storm

Aurora Borealis in the night sky.

The Northern Lights, or aurora borealis, have made an extraordinary appearance across the UK, thrilling skywatchers from the Scottish Highlands to the south coast of England. This rare spectacle, typically confined to more northern latitudes, was visible across the country following one of the strongest geomagnetic storms in recent memory.

Excited onlookers captured stunning images of the lights and shared them on social media, with many describing the display as a "once-in-a-lifetime experience." For those who missed the Friday night show, there's good news: the aurora is expected to be visible again on Saturday night, although perhaps not as intense.

Cause of the Spectacle

This remarkable aurora event was triggered by an extreme geomagnetic storm, classified as a G5, the highest category. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had issued a rare solar storm warning before the event. These storms occur when charged particles from the sun, carried by solar wind, interact with Earth's magnetosphere. The collisions between these particles and gases in the Earth's atmosphere produce the vibrant colours of the aurora borealis.

Impact of the Solar Storm

While the Northern Lights themselves are harmless, the geomagnetic storm that caused them can have significant negative effects. The influx of charged particles can disrupt satellite operations, GPS signals, and power grids. The last major G5 storm in 2003 caused a power outage in Sweden. So far, no major disruptions have been reported from Friday's storm, but the potential for infrastructure impact remains.

Ross Easton, a spokesperson for the Energy Networks Association, emphasized that the energy industry is well-prepared for such events, monitoring space weather forecasts closely. “The energy industry plans for a range of events far and wide - including into space,” he said.

Prof Carole Haswell, head of astronomy at the Open University, highlighted the risk to satellite communications. "All of these charged particles speeding around disrupt radio signals, particularly GPS which is used by planes," she explained.

Increasing Frequency of Aurora Borealis Sightings

Friday's event was particularly rare; the last extreme geomagnetic storm of this magnitude occurred in 2003. Typically, the Northern Lights are visible only in the northern parts of the UK. However, there has been an increase in auroral activity reaching further south in recent years. This trend is partly due to the 11-year solar cycle, which is currently approaching its solar maximum. During this phase, the sun exhibits more sunspots, leading to more frequent and intense solar storms.

Additionally, advancements in forecasting and the prevalence of smartphones capable of capturing bright lights have led to more frequent and widely reported sightings.

Best Viewing Practices

For those hoping to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights in the future, finding a location away from light pollution with a clear view of the night sky is recommended. Patience is key, as the best displays often occur late at night when the sky is darkest.

This rare and spectacular display of the aurora borealis has not only delighted skywatchers but also underscored the powerful and sometimes disruptive influence of solar activity on our planet.


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