Posted on 19 September 2000
They are a common feature of the Arctic and far north, but viewers in Britain must be looking at exactly the right time to be lucky enough to see them. To help out, scientists in the Physics Department at the University of York have created AuroraWatch UK, a web site which will tell you exactly when to look.
"Now is the best time for ten years to see the aurora in Britain" said Dr Ian Mann, Head of the Magnetospheric Physics Group at the University of York. "Aurora were seen all across Britain earlier this year on 6 April, and there should be more to come. Auroral displays are one of the most beautiful of all natural phenomena. AuroraWatch UK will ensure that you don't miss out on the next British auroral light show. If you have a mobile phone, our e-mail aurora-alerts can be forwarded to you, wherever you are."
Launched today (19 September), AuroraWatch UK offers unique real-time monitoring of the magnetic variations which accompany aurora. During active times, an ‘aurora-alert' e-mail will be sent, which can be forwarded as a text message to mobile phones.
Intense aurora displays are generated following massive explosions on the sun, known as coronal mass ejections. These explosions release magnetic clouds containing billions of tons of material travelling at around 2 million miles per hour into space. When the magnetic clouds reach the Earth they can cause events called geomagnetic storms which contribute to severe space weather conditions. The sun's activity varies with a peak every 11 years. Right now the cycle is at its peak, with more sunspots than at any time since 1989. Activity should remain high well into next year.
We have no need to worry, as the Earth's magnetic field acts as a shield which protects us from most of the effects of the blast. However, the visible effects of the biggest geomagnetic storms are to treat UK aurora watchers to beautiful light shows which illuminate the night sky.
Auroral light is very much like a picture on your TV. In your TV, a beam of electrons hit the screen causing the chemicals on the glass to glow. For the aurora, electrons are accelerated along the Earth's magnetic field lines. When they hit the atmosphere, different molecules glow with different colours producing multi-coloured auroral displays.
As well as generating beautiful auroral displays, severe space weather can have significant effects on power and communications systems. It can generate damaging electric surges in power grids, interrupt radio communications systems and can damage Earth-orbiting satellites such as those carrying TV, mobile phone and pager signals. Severe geomagnetic storms also generate intense levels of radiation in space which prevent astronauts from making space walks.
Space weather is a high priority for UK scientists, with the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) funding a programme devoted to understanding it. The AuroraWatch UK measurements are made by the UK Sub-Auroral Magnetometer Network (SAMNET) which is operated by the University of York and funded by PPARC. Combining data from SAMNET and other experiments with measurements from the recently launched four satellites of the ESA Cluster-II mission, scientists expect to make very important advances in understanding space weather.