While the most recent solar cycle peaked in 2013/14, 2015 has seen as many ‘amber’ alerts in the UK as during the two previous years combined. With more sightings of the northern lights predicted in coming months, things still look very promising. I’ve previously provided my Top 10 Tips for seeing the Northern Lights but now you’re all prepared to head out, where should you go ?
By now you should already know that what’s needed in order to see the aurora are:
- sunspot activity – ie a solar flare that sends charged particles hurling towards the Earth at 600+ km/sec;
- clear skies – clouds are the main barrier between you and a great display;
- dark skies, facing northwards – while it’s not impossible to see the northern lights with a full moon or light pollution, you want to minimise these as far as posible to maximise your chances; and
- a fair degree of patience.
The good news is that Scotland is relatively unpopulated (compared with England, for example), and hills can sometimes shield you from nearby light pollution. Therefore, there are many locations in Scotland that are potentially good places for viewing the aurora, particularly north of the Central Belt.
The map below from Aurora Watch UK provides a good starting point for deciding where to go. Clearly, the further north you are, the better your chances, particularly if you can find somewhere away from local light pollution. While there will be more frequent viewings in the far north (potentially with Kp 4+), sightings in the Central Belt will likely require an amber or red alert of Kp5/6+. (The Kp rating is a global geomagnetic storm index from 0 to 9; a rating of 5 and above is considered to be at ‘storm’ level).
In addition, the UK weather and light pollution map from the Campaign for Dark Skies below provides a useful guide to the best places to see the northern lights. On this map the best places are colour coded white, with the worst places colour coded dark yellow. The dark grey areas have little light pollution but few clear nights per year, and the bright yellow areas indicate areas with many clear skies, but suffer greatly from light pollution.
My Top 10 suggestions of the best locations to see the northern lights in Scotland – from north to south – would be:
- Orkney and Caithness (eg Noss Head, Wick)
- Aberdeenshire and the Moray Coast (eg Nairn, Portknockie, Cairn o’ Mount)
- Lewis, Harris and the the most northerly tip of Skye, Rubha Hunish
- The far Northwest (eg Applecross, Lochinver, just north of Ullapool)
- The Cairngorms (eg Cairngorm Mountain car park)
- Angus and the Fife coast (eg St Andrews)
- Rannoch Moor and Perthshire (eg on the road between Crieff and Aberfeldy)
- Galloway Forest Park – the only Dark Sky Park in the UK
- … and if it’s a really strong aurora, Calton Hill or Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh.
Have you found any other good locations ?
Happy aurora hunting !