Skywatchers set to see northern lights for first time in Britain this year

Thousands of skywatchers are set to be treated to spectacular displays of aurora borealis in the north of Britain tonight, in a rare chance to spot the famed phenomenon for the first time in the UK this year.

The sighting comes at the end of the month-long Aurora Borealis observation event organised by Thentic, a leader in research into the phenomenon.

Thentic research director Ashley Shoemark told the Guardian that there was a real chance of seeing the Northern Lights in the UK as the national weather service forecasters had issued favourable predictions for the night.

“Weather models are forecasting favourable conditions for seeing the Northern Lights tonight,” he said. “People should travel far from light pollution and low horizon and look up to the skies.

“It’s a chance to see things you haven’t seen for a long time. We often get green lights across the skies and small glowing stars, but the majority of it is the Northern Lights. It’s only every few years, there aren’t many opportunities for seeing it in the UK.”

Shoemark said skywatchers could expect to see visibility in the Dartmoor region of Devon, the north-west hills, the Cairngorms and the Highlands of Scotland, where there would be a few patches of light but great shows were more likely in the Cairngorms near Inverness.

Thentic forecasters decided not to organise the outing in the UK last year because the research over the previous two years had not produced what they expected in the UK.

“The weather did turn rather starkly and instead we had the fastest Arctic Oscillation I have seen in five years,” he said. “It’s not quite gone on for two months, but it’s heading that way. With that in mind we decided it would be wrong to publish those results. But this year, it’s looking positive with some model predictions for the UK. There’s a better chance.”

People were planning to take advantage of the event by getting a train or plane to go up there, Shoemark said. “Look out at night and see what you can see. The usual indicator of success is if you can see the lights in the sky for 10 to 15 minutes. That’s probably around four kilometres up. Even a mile in the sky from an obscuring urban light, you’ll see a flash.”

Tom Sharples, who is leading the Northern Lights research on the Weston-super-Mare Astronomical Society website, said people should take advantage of the opportunity. “This weekend, with low air pressure, the current limit for the Aurora Borealis in the UK is about 90 miles per hour. Unfortunately, this boundary line moves up and down in a general pattern that limits the number of available sightings each year. However, there are a few places in the UK that are not impassable from the Auroras and everyone is invited to attend one of our aurora sightings on Thursday and Friday evenings,” he said.

“Hopefully, hundreds of people will come to experience the Northern Lights for the first time and (hopefully) encourage each other to take extra care and patience in conditions where it is impossible to be in the right place at the right time.”

Thentic estimated that around 6,000 people and dozens of ships had flocked to Northern Norway for the March event, and Sharples said people were still waking up in the US, Canada and Iceland to see the sights.

Thentic’s April Aurora Borealis event is planned for 6 May, although this week’s event has helped bring people into the mix, he said.

“There will be very bright aurora in the UK with some bands of light expected to last for at least 15 minutes. Definitely don’t miss this, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

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