What Is It About the Northern Lights?

Northern Lights above Lendrick Hill in Clackmannanshire, Scotland (Photo by William Starkey, taken in 2016)

Dear Readers, my Mum always wanted to see the Northern Lights. She’d seen a BBC TV programme featuring Joanna Lumley, (and you can watch some of it too here). She never did see it: after their sixtieth wedding anniversary I tried to organise a cruise for them, but Dad wanted somewhere hot and Mum wanted to see the Northern Lights, and so many criteria were designated that it became impossible. Now, I realise that they were both terrified to go so far out of their comfort zones, but they didn’t want to tell me. One of these days, I will find a way to see the Northern Lights myself, and I will see them for Mum and for me.

The Northern Lights (and the Aurora Australis in the south) are the result of particles emitted by the Sun, that are drawn towards the Earth by gravity, but which then bounce off of our atmosphere, releasing energy as light. Normally they just bounce off of the top and bottom of the planet, but when there’s a particularly splendid gust of the ‘solar wind’ we can see them much further south. Incidentally, other planets also have auroras, being subject to the same particle emissions as us – have a look at this photo of the aurora around the poles of Jupiter. Now, that would be something to see.

Jupiter with aurora – photo from Nasa

For now, though, I am keeping my fingers crossed that someone who reads this has actually managed to see the phenomenon from their back garden in the UK – the Northern Lights can often be seen in the Outer Hebrides, or the Shetlands, but it’s much rarer to see them as far south as St Albans (where they appeared on Sunday night), or in Cornwall. You can belong to something called Aurora Watch, which will give you a shout-out if there’s a chance of a sighting (though I didn’t get one, harrumph). The trick seems to be to find the darkest place that you can (something of a trick in North London) and look north. It won’t be as spectacular here as it is in Svalbard, but surely such a rarity is worth a look! You can see some splendid photos of Sunday’s display here.

As with many natural phenomena, the Northern Lights have been seen as harbingers of doom or auspicious signs. If you watch the Joanna Lumley piece, the scientist at the start tells her that it’s very bad luck to whistle at the aurora, in case it notices you and spirits you away. On the other hand, some Native Americans/First Peoples believed that the aurora will carry messages to the dead for you if you whistle to ask them to come closer. And in Japanese culture, it’s believed that a child conceived under the Northern Lights will be both lucky and beautiful. In Iceland, it was believed that the the aurora eased the pain of childbirth, but a pregnant woman shouldn’t look at them because she would give birth to cross-eyed children. So if you do get a glimpse over the next few days, you will have a multitude of ways to behave, some more fun than others.

Let me know your Aurora stories, if you have any! And I will be keeping my eyes peeled, and will let you know how I get on, though I think I will have to go a bit further north than Totteridge to see them.

10 thoughts on “What Is It About the Northern Lights?

  1. Anne

    I have seen a photograph taken in Scotland – very pretty too. We tend to experience cloudy weather here whenever something interesting is scheduled to appear in the night sky.

  2. chrisswan94

    I did look last night but it was a little cloudy. The moon was very bright and I suspect, to see them clearly, you should be away from a city with light pollution. A pity but maybe I should take a cruise instead too?

  3. Alittlebitoutoffocus

    We kept an eye out last night but there was nothing to see apart from some clouds. We missed an opportunity the other night, when we probably would have been able to see them (despite the bright lights of Portmeirion across the estuary). We have complained to Portmeirion, but they say it’s for Health and Safety reasons that they need to light their pathways for their guests. We may try again and ask them to turn down the brightness.

  4. Emily B

    I too saw the Joanna Lumley programme and was inspired to take a trip for my 50th birthday with my family and close friends to the Lofoten archipelago in Norway almost exactly 11 years ago. We were lucky enough to see the Northern Lights on several nights. A truly awe inspiring experience, something I will never forget. It was truly breathtaking.

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      I must go, for sure! I think Mum was very moved by how moved Joanna Lumley was, and when I watched the clip before I shared it, I could see why.


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