The aurora is out, now how do I see it?

AuroraWatch UK constantly strives to send out accurate alerts of when the aurora might be visible from the UK, and we let you know from where you might be able to see it too. So picture the scene: we’ve just issued an amber alert. That means that it could be possible to see the aurora from Scotland, northern England, Northern Ireland and possibly elsewhere in the UK too. And what are the chances, it’s a clear sky too! So you run outside, then see something like this:

Or maybe this:

Although there have been blips in the past when our alerts haven’t been entirely correct, we like to think that they are pretty accurate. So what’s gone wrong? The aurora is out but, how do I see it?

Get somewhere dark

The most common cause of aurora blocking, other than the typically lousy UK weather, is light pollution. As detailed in our previous article, the light from the aurora is simply not strong enough, most of the time, to pierce through the sunlight or the glow from towns and cities. What you might end up seeing is a glow of light coming from the horizon which might even mimic some auroral colours. The easiest way to combat this is to find a dark spot which is away from any built up areas, which of course might be easier said than done for our followers in cities, and wait until the sun has completely set so there is no lingering glow.

Get somewhere north

There’s no secret hidden in the name. The northern lights are called just that because of their tendency to be seen at northern latitudes and are typically associated with places like Scandinavia, Iceland, and Canada. There’s a very good reason these cold, northern lands get such great light shows, and that’s because of their position on the earth in relation to where the auroral-causing particles enter the earth’s atmosphere.

The earth is not simply a giant ball of rock in space, but a complicated system with a ‘magnetic shield’ which we call the magnetosphere. This shield prevents the atmosphere from being pulled out into space by fast solar material blowing past the earth.


Just like iron filings around a magnet, the earth has a magnetic field and this shields us from harmful solar radiation.

However, we don’t live in a perfect bubble. Notice the part on the right where the magnetosphere looks like it’s being stretched into a tail – a good amount of solar particles end up accumulating at this point until they burst down the field lines into high latitude regions (i.e. around the North and South Poles) as geomagnetic substorms on the night side of the earth. They then mix with the atmosphere and create the renowned event we call aurora borealis (northern hemisphere) and aurora australis (southern hemisphere). Below is a video from NASA which shows this quite nicely:

So if all this is going on near to the poles, why do we sometimes get to see aurora from the UK? You might have seen a picture like this before:

The SWPC OVATION Prime (2010) output for 10pm (UT) on 06 March 2016.

The SWPC OVATION Prime (2010) output for 10pm (UT) on 06 March 2016.

The aurora is concentrated in a ring around the pole which is extra strong on the nightside (where the substorms are happening!). We call this the auroral oval. Most of the time, just the northern-most countries will be directly underneath the oval. But sometimes, during stronger aurora, this oval expands southwards to cover more southern countries such as the UK. Additionally because the aurora forms quiet high in the sky, it can be seen much further south than just directly beneath the oval.

The moral of this story: you are more likely to see the aurora if you go as far north as possible!

Get somewhere high up

Over on our photography page, we provide a map of some of the best known places to catch the aurora. North facing coastal views are good because it’s easier to avoid light pollution, but the other option is to find a big hill and climb it (maybe check it out in daylight first though!). Hills or mountains are great vantage points for aurora viewing not only because of how much further you are able to see, but it also makes it easier to see the horizon where weaker aurora might be visible.

Get the camera out

There are some truly spectacular shots over at our Flickr group of aurora taken from throughout the UK, like this one taken from Angelsey, Wales:

Photo taken by Kris Williams from Penmon, Anglesey

Photo taken by Kris Williams from Penmon, Anglesey. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Unfortunately, humans can’t control how much light they let into their eyes, but most cameras have exactly that function. If you have a camera which lets you change the exposure time, increasing it will mean that the shutter will be open for longer and therefore make otherwise faint lights much brighter. This is perfect for seeing aurora which might be too dim to see by eye (at least in full colour) and bring out the beautiful structure you see in the pictures we often share.

But, even with a long exposure, you may only just catch a glimpse of the aurora as this photo shows:

Aurora and car lights

Steve Marple. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.

How do I know when there will be aurora?

You can follow us on Facebook, Twitter or download our dedicated apps to receive up to date alerts on auroral activity within the UK. We also love to see any aurora photos you get and answer questions on any of our social media pages. If you’ve taken some photos but you’re not sure if you captured the aurora, take a look at our blog post for more info or ask away!

Happy aurora hunting!


One thought on “The aurora is out, now how do I see it?

  1. Pingback: Round up of UK aurora 25-26 Sept | AuroraWatch UK

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