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Catching the Aurora

A few days ago the northern lights (aurora borealis) graced Scotland with a spectacular display. Just after 9pm phones started pinging with aurora apps and messages from friends, the jist of it was 'get outside now!'. All across Scotland people jumped into their cars, raced to the nearest viewpoint, and gathered in their pyjamas. The skies were lit up in shimmers of green and red all across the country.


All photos (professional and.. not so professional) are from 26th and 27th February 2023.


Photo: Calum Cuthill, Ballachulish.

What is the aurora?


We've all seen photos of green lighting up the night skies, but what actually are the aurora borealis?


Surprisingly, the lights we see are caused by storms on the surface of the sun. These storms release electrically charged particles which travel across the solar system and eventually reach earth. Because these particles are electrically charged they can get picked up by Earth's magnetic field and move towards the north and south poles.



Photo: EileanShonaArts , Old Man of Storr.


As the charged particles collide with our atmosphere they heat up and become visible! The spectacle typically takes place 80 miles above our heads and the patterns we see reveal the Earth's magnetic field. Remember the iron filings/magnet experiment at school? A bit like that, but a lot more magical.


For more info and tips for capturing the lights on camera: https://www.rmg.co.uk/stories/topics/what-causes-northern-lights-aurora-borealis-explained .



Photo: Greg Carr, looking from Eigg over to Rum.


How often can it be seen in Scotland?


The activity of the Sun's storms changes over time. Typically activity peaks in 11 year cycles, with the next peak due in 2025. This means the next few years could be the prime time to spot the aurora in our skies! It is impossible to predict how often the northern lights will reveal themselves, but the British Geological Survey estimates that they peak every few months.



Photo: Ed Smith, Sgor Gaoith.

How can I see it?


Unfortunately seeing the northern lights requires a huge amount of luck. Conditions need to be just right: the forecast needs to be strong, the clouds clear, and the sky dark! In the above photo Ed Smith gambled on the cloud level and just managed to climb above the mist to catch a spectacular display.


This means your chances are greatest when you're away from light pollution and in winter when the skies are darkest. I'd recommend downloading an aurora app (such as AuroraWatch UK to get alerts of when they might be visible on your phone). Other than that your best bet is simply to spend as much time out in the dark looking up!


So what are you waiting for? Download an app and head north. And you might as well book a Girls on Hills course whilst you're here..


Images from Girls on Hills



Keri Wallace, Ballachulish.

Nancy Kennedy Junior(!), Ballachulish.

Hannah Godden, Corpach.

Jess Williams, Glen Nevis.

Georgia Tindley, looking over Ruthven Barracks, Kingussie.

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