Lights alive!

Aurora/Northern Lights over Morpeth'by Adrian Jannetta

Aurora/Northern Lights over Morpeth'by Adrian Jannetta

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THE skies put on a stunning show over Northumberland this week as the glorious Northern Lights dazzled the region.

The natural phenomenon of the Aurora Borealis is usually reserved for more northern parts of the world, but due to a surge in solar activity the spectacular light show could be seen as far south as Yorkshire on Sunday.

Chairman of the Northumberland Astronomical Society (Nastro) Adrian Jannetta, who was one of those to capture the display on camera, explained how it occurs.

“The Northern Lights are usually fairly constant over countries much further north of here,” he said.

“They are caused by a steady stream of particles emerging from the sun, which interact with the earth’s magnetic field and cause the top of the atmosphere to glow like you would get with a neon light. That happens all the time, but the sun goes through phases where it becomes more active every 11 years or so.

“The particles carry on solar winds, but when it is more active you get gusts where a lot of additional stuff comes out. They are like eruptions that throw out about a billion tonnes of particles. If the earth is in the firing line then you can see the Northern Lights much further south.”

And Dr Jannetta, who lives in Morpeth, has good news for those who missed the lights this time as it is likely they could be around for another few years.

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He said: “During the last period of the sun’s maximum activity in 2001 we saw the lights a number of times in the years around then, and from about 2000 to 2004 they weren’t that uncommon for Britain.

“The sun’s activity dropped off after then so up to 2009 or 2010 we didn’t see anything, but now the sun is getting more active the lights are going to become more common.

“There is a good chance people will see them for a while yet and the maximum activity will be next year.

“The Northern Lights were seen on a few evenings in Northumberland last year, but they weren’t widely reported because not many people saw them. This is the first time where a lot of people have seen them in this cycle.

“There was a really fabulous aurora seen from here in 1989 and the ones we have seen since haven’t been as dramatic, but a really big display could happen at any time.”

Dr Jannetta said that to have the best chance of seeing the displays people can check the NASA spaceweather.com website, which gives alerts two or three days before they are likely to be seen.

It is better to stand somewhere dark, with a clear view of the northern horizon.

There will be another treat at dawn on June 6 with the Venus Transit, when the planet passes between the sun and the earth. It will not be seen again until the 22nd Century.

The Nastro group offers beginners courses every month to help people learn more about astronomy from its observatory at Hauxley Nature Reserve, and also provides information online.

For more information, or to join the group, visit www.nastro.org.uk