Parts of Scotland will be able to see the Northern Lights tonight, following heightened activity on the sun. A coronal hole, from where very fast solar winds are emitted, has formed and is currently heading towards Earth. When these winds hit the Earth’s charged atmosphere during a solar storm, they create auroras, usually only visible in areas nearer the Arctic. Last month a very powerful solar storm allowed sky gazers as far south as Kent and Cornwall (in England) to see the Northern Lights.
The Met office has forecast that sightings will be possible in Scotland tonight, and may be seen again tomorrow. However, they are not expected to be visible further south. The solar storm is considered minor and forms part of a period of “solar maximum”, where auroras become more common. These occur every 11 years or so, and are connected to more active suns, usually with greater numbers of coronal holes and significant phenomena such as coronal mass ejections (CMEs).
Daniel Verscharen, associate professor of space and climate physics at University College London, explained that it is as if the sun is “waking up” during such periods of greater activity. Generally, such solar wind-induced geomagnetic storms are not considered dangerous to people or infrastructure, although there may be implications for satellite technology, so communication channels may occasionally be disrupted. NOAA offers space weather alerts on its site.
September is looking like a good month for solar activity, with further activity anticipated for the 10-11th and around the 25th.
Meanwhile GMF expects the UK to face acute energy shortages this winter unless radical action is taken. Over-reliance on imported gas leaves the UK in a precarious position due to ongoing political tensions with Russia, which produces 43% of the gas consumed by Europe. Wholesale gas prices are at a four-year high, threatening the competitiveness of UK industry, and the government has warned that those who fail to adopt new CO2 controls risks being potentially shut down.
Update, 13th September: The geomagnetic storm (solar storm) on 12th September was classified a G4 storm on the Kp index (Kp= 8) scale. This means that Northern Lights may be visible across much of the UK and Northern States tonight and potentially even further south in Europe and the US. Geomagnetic storms are categorised from G1-G5, with G5 being the most extreme. G4 storms can cause blackouts (as happened in Quebec in 1989).