Turn your eyes to the skies this month and you might spot the magical Northern Lights. For a better chance of seeing the ethereal aurora, download the app created by scientists at Lancaster University – or follow the photographers we met this month

For thousands of years, people have been captivated by beautiful displays of the aurora borealis.

In the regions bordering the Arctic circle where they are most commonly spotted, aurorae have long held special significance, often being associated with the spirit world or the afterlife.

In the UK we tend to think of auroral displays as being rare and elusive events, but further north they are relatively commonplace. Modern life, with warm, well-lit homes in towns and cities, means people spend less time outdoors under dark skies, but the northern lights are still there if you know where and when to look.

An entire industry of aurora tourism has developed, with tours taking aurora chasers north to dark spots in Scandinavia, Iceland, Canada and Alaska to try to catch the northern lights. But, just like bird spotting or whale watching, success isn’t guaranteed, and poor weather or bad luck can spoil your chances.

Great British Life: Prof Jim Wild. PHOTO: Lancaster UniversityProf Jim Wild. PHOTO: Lancaster University

If seeing the northern lights is on your wish list, you have probably noticed that the aurora borealis makes the headlines at home from time to time. I know I have – I’m approached by TV and radio producers a few times every year to comment on auroral displays that have been seen from the UK. So why does this happen, and can it be predicted in advance?

To answer this, we need to understand some more about our planet’s place in the solar system. We tend to think of our environment as those parts of nature we can see around us: fields, mountains, lakes, oceans, clouds, our weather and wildlife. But the Earth’s environment stretches far out into space. Rather than being an empty void, the space around our planet hosts a cocktail of sub-atomic particles that originate from the Sun and from the Earth’s upper atmosphere.

These particles are influenced by constantly shifting electromagnetic fields and can be energised by naturally-occurring fluctuations in solar activity. When conditions are right, some of this material is funnelled downwards towards the Earth, guided towards the polar regions by our planet’s powerful magnetic field.

As they crash through the Earth’s upper atmosphere, incoming subatomic particles cause our atmosphere to glow in a process very similar to that found inside a neon lamp. The distinctive green and red light most commonly seen in aurorae is predominantly emitted by oxygen atoms at altitudes of 100-200km above the ground.

The shape of the Earth’s magnetic field focuses aurorae in the regions surrounding the magnetic poles; the aurora borealis in the northern polar region and the aurora australis in the south. Everyday levels of solar activity mean that in the northern hemisphere, these processes typically occur in the skies thousands of kilometres north of the British Isles.

But from time to time, bursts of enhanced solar activity can cause interplanetary conditions to become especially disturbed. When this happens, the mechanisms that generate auroral displays are energised and the aurorae expand towards the equator. In the northern hemisphere, this can push the aurora south and towards sky-watchers in UK.

Although solar storms powerful enough to drive aurorae towards the British Isles can occur at any time, they are most likely during the peak of the Sun’s 11-year magnetic activity cycle. Astronomers have been charting the Sun’s waxing and waning behaviour since Galileo’s time by counting the number of dark sunspots, symptoms of the Sun’s magnetic activity that are visible on the solar surface. The good news for UK-based aurora spotters is the next maximum in solar activity is expected in 2025, so the next couple of years offer good chances of auroral displays visible from home.

The best times of year to see the aurora from the UK tend be in September and October and from January to March but the science of predicting “space weather” is still being developed.

Great British Life: A red alert on the AuroraWatch UK app. PHOTO: Neil Morton A red alert on the AuroraWatch UK app. PHOTO: Neil Morton

At present, the best forecasts offer a few days of warning that conditions likely to bring aurorae to the UK are possible and such predictions include considerable uncertainty. Forecasts with greater certainty tend to only give a few hours notice at best and it’s unlikely that precise warnings will be available for a while yet. But you can tip the odds in your favour.

* Social media can provide excellent real-time alerts. There’s nothing like seeing pictures of aurorae taken near you to encourage you to go and take a look yourself. Follow keen UK-based aurora-spotters and photographers in your preferred social media network and set up alerts.

* Sign up to dedicated aurora alert tools. The Space and Planetary Physics research team at Lancaster University runs AuroraWatch UK, a tool that uses real-time measurements of the geomagnetic activity that accompanies solar storms to post alerts to social media channels and a dedicated smartphone app warning that aurora sightings are possible over the UK.

* If you live somewhere remote and have dark skies above, you may be able to see the aurora from your doorstep, but most us live in communities with bright street lighting and other sources of artificial illumination. Unless the aurorae are very bright, you’ll need to find somewhere dark to be able to see them so think about where you might go. It could be the end of the road, a spot on your local dog-walking route, or a short drive away.

* Even when the northern lights come south, they are usually located slightly north of the British Isles or over northern Scotland. Their altitude means they can be spotted hundreds of kilometres away, but they are usually seen in the northern part of the sky so it’s best to find somewhere without light pollution and a clear view of the northern horizon.

* It can take 10-15 minutes for your eyes to fully adapt to the dark. Once they have, you will be able to see structure, movement and colour that would be imperceptible at first, but bright artificial lights – from phones or camera screens – ruin this in an instant.

* If you find absolute darkness uncomfortable, have a red-coloured torch on standby. The human eye is less sensitive to red light than other colours, so you can use one to provide some illumination without ruining your dark-adapted vision. They can be bought quite cheaply, or you can make one yourself with a transparent red sweet wrapper.

* Photographs taken with long duration exposures can reveal structures and colour that are too subtle for the eye.

* Be patient. One of the biggest challenges in the UK is the weather, especially in the dark winter months so persistence is important.

* You can find AuroraWatch UK on Twitter and Facebook. The AuroraWatch app is available free for Android and Apple devices.

Making light work of shooting in the dark

Great British Life: The aurora over Mary's Shell at Cleveleys. PHOTO: Stephen CheatleyThe aurora over Mary's Shell at Cleveleys. PHOTO: Stephen Cheatley

Blackpool is famous for its Lights but they almost denied photographer Stephen Cheatley of the chance to snap the aurora.

When he phone pinged with a notification from the AuroraWatch app, he headed to the beach from his home in the town but found it was just too bright.

'The Tower and the piers were all lit up, so I couldn't see the northern lights at all and they didn't show up on the photographs because of the light pollution,' he said.

'I headed up the coast to Cleveleys and although it was a bit bright there as well and I still couldn't see it with the naked eye, I could clearly see the aurora on the camera screen.'

Stephen is a former winner of the international Weather Photographer of the Year award and has seen the northern lights from sites across the UK, but not from Iceland where he went hoping for spectacular displays but found the skies too cloudy.

Great British Life: The view of the aurora from the Forest of Bowland. PHOTO: Kate HenryThe view of the aurora from the Forest of Bowland. PHOTO: Kate Henry

Kate Henry didn’t even bother to change out of her pyjamas when she thought there might be a chance of photographing northern lights.

The BAe project manager left her home at Longridge and drove to the Forest of Bowland – and was surprised and delighted by the results.

‘It was 10.30 on a Sunday night and I thought there might be a chance of seeing the lights so I drove out to Bowland in my pyjamas. I was the only person there and I couldn’t believe the pictures I managed to get looking out towards Parlick,’ she said.

The following night she went to Beacon Fell where she found more aurora hunters and again managed to capture the magical lights.

Great British Life: The northern lights from Beacon Fell. PHOTO: Kate HenryThe northern lights from Beacon Fell. PHOTO: Kate Henry

‘The views from there are great and there are good spots for seeing the lights along the Lancashire coast, too – at Crosby and at the northern end of the Fylde Coast, at Fleetwood and Cleveleys.’

Kate is a keen walker with more than 37,000 followers of her Hike With Kate Instagram page where she documents her efforts to walk to each of the 100 surviving trig pillars in Lancashire.

‘I only really started my outdoors Instagram account last April when I finished the Wainwrights,’ she said. ‘After that I wanted another challenge. the Peak District it’s an established challenge to bag the 82 trig pillars and I wanted to do something similar in Lancashire but there’s no definitive list of how many are left here. I’ve visited just over half of them so far.

‘A lot of my love for the outdoors comes from my dad and he has started to come with me on the trig pillar walks.

‘I love exploring Lancashire. I have really focused on doing that this year and I have found so many different places to visit and explore.

‘I hope to encourage more people to get out there and I think since Covid people have changed the way they use the outdoors. The people I have bumped into when I’ve been out walking used to generally be about my dad’s age, but I have noticed more younger people getting interested in the outdoors. I think having that one daily walk during the lockdowns helped people to appreciate the countryside more.’

Great British Life: The northern lights over Morecambe Bay. PHOTO: Dean VallanceThe northern lights over Morecambe Bay. PHOTO: Dean Vallance

Dean Vallance also acted quickly when he received a notification from an aurora app that there was a good chance of seeing the lights.

‘I ran down the road from my house with my tripod and camera,’ he said. ‘I was the only person there and when the clouds broke the lights were visible with the naked eye, but they were so much stronger in the picture.

‘When I’ve had the notifications in the past, it’s often been too cloudy to see the lights, and although it was quite cloudy I risked it and I’m so glad I did. posted the picture on Facebook and it got a good response.’

Dean, who lives at Knott End, captured the aurora over Morecambe Bay and he was back there the following night after another notification, but the Lancashire weather conspired against him that time and the sky was too cloudy to see the lights.

‘Photography is just a hobby,’ he said. ‘I’ve always enjoyed taking pictures and having a creative outlet. I enjoy photographing the landscapes and the skies in Cornwall and Wales, but I really like exploring closer to home as well. There’s some great landscapes around Lancashire.’

Great British Life: A shot of the northern lights from near the Singing Ringing Tree at Burnley. PHOTO:Jon DuarteA shot of the northern lights from near the Singing Ringing Tree at Burnley. PHOTO:Jon Duarte

Jon Duarte’s shot of the northern lights was taken on his phone from near the Singing Ringing Tree sculpture on the hills overlooking Burnley.

‘I was in bed and my phone started ringing with an alert from the app so I jumped out of bed and a had a quick drive out,’ he said. ‘The lights were only visible for about five minutes, so I was really pleased with the shot I managed to get.’

Originally from Portugal, Jon now lives in Rawtenstall and enjoys exploring the countryside. ‘I love the outdoors and I feel very at home camping in the Lake District and in Wales. I am always up to some sort of outdoor activity and photography is an add-on to that.