Large solar storm brings spectacular views of the aurora

23 06 2015

Updated 24 June 2015

The Space Weather team at the Met Office has been keeping a close eye on solar activity over recent days. A large solar storm resulted in the northern lights being seen as far south as Dorset and Bournemouth on Monday night.

Taken by Richard Cliff on Exmoor

Taken by Richard Cliff on Exmoor

A particularly active sunspot came into view during the early part of last week. This sunspot continued to grow in complexity which has resulted in a number of moderate solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) which is when the Sun ejects some of its atmosphere out into space. This can be seen on the image below as a faint circle, almost like smoke. These travel at speeds of around 2 million mph. On Sunday one such CME was launched directly at Earth. Travelling at these speeds it still took almost two days to travel the 93 million miles from the Sun to Earth. When it hit Earths magnetic field it caused a Severe Geomagnetic Storm (A G4 storm on a scale of 1 to 5). It was this which caused the Aurora to appear in the skies of southern England on Monday night.

Solar flare released on 21 June

CME from 21 June visible as a faint circle

Large geomagnetic storms can result in disruption to power grids, which is why it is important that these storms are monitored and warned for, although fortunately the UK grid is more resilient to space weather than the grids in many other countries. There are no impacts on human health as a result of these solar storms, in fact they can have some very welcome effects in the form of increased aurora, both in effect and extent.

Our Space Weather advisors are now watching another CME, which looks like it could be heading our way. This has the potential to bring another night of spectacular aurora views on Wednesday night. To see the northern lights, wait until at least half an hour after sunset, go outside away from artificial lights, let your eyes accustom to the dark and look towards the north. There will be some cloud around tonight, check out our cloud cover forecast for more information.





Northern Lights reach the UK

17 03 2015

Anyone in the Midlands, and further north, might have a chance of catching sight of the northern lights tonight.

Occasionally there are large explosions on the Sun and huge amounts of magnetically charged particles are thrown out into space, this is called a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME). If these particles travel towards Earth they interact with the Earth’s magnetic field and increase global geomagnetic activity. The increased activity releases energy into the atmosphere giving off light in the process, which we call the Northern Lights or the aurora borealis.

A CME left the sun on Sunday 15 March, arriving at Earth in the early hours of this morning (Tues). As the day has gone on the Earth’s magnetic field has become more disturbed with the disturbance reaching a level of G4 on the 0 to 5 NOAA geomagnetic space weather scales.

CME leaving the sun on 15th March 2015 courtesy of NASA

CME leaving the sun on 15th March 2015 picture courtesy of NASA

 

As a result of this activity the aurora is visible in those parts of the globe currently in darkness. As the UK becomes dark tonight there is an increased chance of the aurora being visible as far south as the Midlands. However due to the extensive cloud cover in Eastern areas, the best chance of clear skies is to the west of high ground. Check cloud cover in your area via our dedicated pages.

Areas such as the Northern tip of Northern Ireland, the Western Isles and parts of North Wales probably stand the best chance of seeing the aurora. See the British Geological Survey  web pages on tips to see the aurora.

 





Giant sun spot moves back into view

12 11 2014

The Met Office Space Weather Operations Centre is closely monitoring what was the biggest sun spot in the current 11-year solar cycle as it rotates back onto the face of the Sun. When it last faced the Earth it was the largest since 1990 and about 11 times bigger than the Earth or the size of Jupiter. This sunspot was first visible during the last two weeks of October but then moved round the back of the sun. Whilst it has been out of view from many of our monitoring instruments it doesn’t appear to have produced any significant activity.

Sun spot rotates back onto the face of the Sun.

Sun spot rotates back onto the face of the Sun.

Although this is the biggest sunspot for 25 years it doesn’t mean it is very active or that it is more likely anything significant will happen.

Space weather forecasters look for features like the complexity of the magnetic field to determine how active it might be. When this sunspot was visible last month it emitted a couple of strong, and a few moderate, solar flares but nothing out of the ordinary.

The significant events we’re looking for are Coronal Mass Ejections (CME) and to date there have been no CME associated with these flares. CME are eruptions of large amounts of matter and energetic particles from the solar atmosphere that can impact our technology here on Earth.





Space weather brings Northern Lights to UK

11 09 2014

You may be lucky enough to get a glimpse of the northern lights in Scotland, and if you are really lucky in northern England and Northern Ireland, late Friday night into Saturday morning. The aurora borealis is caused as a result of activity on the surface of the sun.

Occasionally there are large explosions on the Sun and huge amounts of magnetically charged particles are thrown out into space (Coronal Mass Ejections). If these particles travel towards Earth they interact with the Earth’s magnetic field and increase global geomagnetic activity. The increased activity releases energy into the atmosphere giving off light in the process, which we call the Northern Lights or the aurora borealis.

There are currently two Coronal Mass Ejections (CME) en route to Earth. The first should arrive tonight (Thursday night) giving the earth’s atmosphere a glancing blow, the second is likely to arrive later on Friday. Their combined effect increases the chance of an aurora borealis event Friday night/Saturday morning, particularly at high latitudes in Scotland.

To view the Northern Lights you are best finding a dark place away from street lights. You will need a cloud-free sky and although there will be some cloud and localised fog patches around this Friday night there should also be some clear skies too. So there is a chance of catching a glimpse of the lights. Your best chance of sighting the aurora will be around midnight.

X-Class Flare erupting from The Sun. This event led to an Earth directed Coronal Mass Ejection

 

You can sign-up to receive aurora borealis alerts from the British Geological Survey when there is a chance for aurora activity when there is a chance for aurora activity or tell everyone about your sightings using GeoSocial – Aurora

Keep an eye on the Met Office forecasts for the latest information.





Met Office keeping a close eye on space weather

16 05 2013

The Met Office will be keeping a close eye on the Sun over the coming days after a recent surge in its activity.

It’s fairly common for eruptions from the Sun (often called “space weather”) to occur, and these are usually associated with sunspots – dark areas of intense activity on the surface of the star.

The eruptions from these spots come in several different forms, but if the events are of sufficient strength and directed towards the Earth, they can all cause impacts on our modern-day technology. Impacts range from minor interference to communication networks to temporary disruption to electricity supply, satellites and GPS navigation.

Over the past few days a sunspot, identified by the number 1748, has been the cause of many solar eruptions which have already caused some minor impacts.

NASA image showing a solar flare from sunspot 1748

NASA image showing one of the recent solar flares ejecting from sunspot 1748

Some of the eruptions have been in the form of Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs), which are plumes of electromagnetically charged gas (plasma). These have been focused away from Earth so far, but, as the sun rotates, there is a chance the sunspot could emit a CME in our direction.

Mark Gibbs, Head of Space Weather at the Met Office, said: “If a strong CME were to be directed at Earth it could have some disruptive impacts, but at the moment the probability of this happening appears to be low.

“We’ll be keeping a close watch on the situation, particularly from Friday evening onwards, to advise on anything that could cause disruption to help the UK minimise any potential impacts. Hopefully this event will pass without the majority of people noticing, but it’s important we monitor the risk.”

Since February 2011, the Met Office has been working with a range of partners, including the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the British Geological Survey (BGS) and the UK Space Agency to develop a UK-based space weather forecasting service.

This monitors the Sun’s activity and then predicts how these changes are likely to affect the Earth’s environment. The Met Office Hazard Centre currently has forecasters trained in space weather forecasting, and awareness is being raised across different industry sectors to make them aware of their potential vulnerability and how we can help lessen the risks.

In the event of a CME, space weather monitoring can provide anything from 17 hours to 3 days advance warning – allowing vital time to prepare.

Solar activity is currently expected to be high as we are near the peak of an 11-year solar cycle, which sees the Sun’s activity increase and decrease over the period.

You can see more about space weather forecasting in our Youtube video.





Northern Lights over the UK

24 01 2012
Aurora Borealis (231574247)

Guest blog: Sarah Reay, British Geological Survey

Many people in the UK were treated to a fine display of the northern lights (aurora borealis) on Sunday night. This was seen widely throughout Scotland and the north of England. There is a chance for further auroral displays tonight or tomorrow night if we are lucky.

The Northern Lights are a result of a geomagnetic storm. These storms are short-lived periods of high geomagnetic activity where the Earth’s magnetic field changes very quickly and strong electric currents flow high in the atmosphere.

The geomagnetic storm is a consequence of activity on the surface of the Sun. Occasionally there are large explosions on the Sun, and huge amounts of charged particles are thrown out into space. These particles sometimes travel towards Earth where they are captured by the Earth’s magnetic field and guided towards the geomagnetic polar regions. On their way down these particles are slowed down by Earth’s atmosphere, which acts as a shield. These charged particles collide with gas molecules in the atmosphere. The energy released in these collisions is given off as light.

Geomagnetic storms follow the 11-year solar cycle. As we are heading towards the next solar maximum, due in 2013, the chance of big magnetic storms is on the increase. On average you might expect to see aurora in the far north of Scotland every few months, but less often as you travel further south.

To view the Northern Lights you are best finding a dark place away from street lights. You will need a cloud-free sky. In general, look to the north although it could be overhead or elsewhere. For your best chance of sighting an aurora, try to look during the hours around local midnight (22:00-02:00). However geomagnetic activity can happen at any time!

You can sign-up to receive alerts from the British Geological Survey when there is a chance for aurora activity. Unfortunately cloud is predicted for most of the UK tonight, but there is a much better chance for Wednesday night onwards. Keep an eye on the Met Office forecasts for the latest information.

* Many thanks to Sarah Reay of the British Geological Survey for the above guest blog. As a side note, people may be interested to know that solar storms can have other impacts on our planet – such as affecting telecommunication systems. The Met Office is developing a space weather forecasting system to give early warnings of events. As part of this, we are working in collaboration with the US’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to develop the service.








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