Aurora alert on 13 March leads to stunning UK Northern Lights display

Aurora chasers in the UK were treated to a wonderful display on 13 March 2022.

An aurora display of 13 March 2022 from Cockermouth, Cumbria, UK.
Published: March 16, 2022 at 3:52 pm
Try BBC Sky at Night Magazine today and save 30%!

Throughout the day on Sunday 13 March 2022, clock-watching amateur astronomers and sky-watchers across the UK waited impatiently for sunset, hoping to see if space weather experts’ predictions of an impressive display of the aurora borealis – or Northern Lights – that evening would come true.

Advertisement

A powerful solar flare several days earlier had sent a huge plume of material billowing towards Earth, and calculations and models suggested that when it hit Earth’s magnetic field it might trigger displays of the aurora that would be visible from locations further south than usual.

Many observers began scanning the northern sky as soon as the stars began to come out, but although reports revealed the aurora was visible in the north of Scotland, it seemed that nothing special was brewing for those of us further south.

An aurora display of 13 March 2022 from Cockermouth, Cumbria, UK.
An aurora display of 13 March 2022 from Cockermouth, Cumbria, UK. Credit: Stuart Atkinson

Finally, around 11pm, activity surged southwards, and observers across the north of England, down into Wales and even Norfolk began to see an arc of pale grey-green stretching across their northern sky.

Soon that arc began to brighten considerably and sprout rays of beams of green light too.

By half past eleven a major display of the Northern Lights was in progress, obvious to the naked eye and delighting veteran and beginner aurora observers across a large area of the north of the UK.

This was further proof of a recent increase in aurora displays in the UK.

An aurora display of 13 March 2022 from Cockermouth, Cumbria, UK.
Credit: Stuart Atkinson

This display came 33 years to the day that a famously bright and energetic display of the Northern Lights lit up the sky above the whole of the UK.

The 13 March auroral storm of 1989 was one of the most amazing ever seen, filling the whole sky with cherry red beams and swaying curtains of bright green. And I had missed it.

I had been at the cinema with some friends that evening, and had no idea an aurora was raging outside the theatre during the screen, and just outside my window when I got back home.

I only learned about it the next morning when it as all over the TV and radio news, and people I knew were telling me how stunning a show I’d missed.

At the time I was almost inconsolable at having missed such a rare event, and I have been mad at myself ever since for missing that display, cursing the date of March 13th every year, remembering the one that got away...

An aurora display of 13 March 2022 from Cockermouth, Cumbria, UK.
Credit: Stuart Atkinson

But last Sunday night I was one of the lucky ones who saw the display, which has given me a strange kind of closure after missing that storm all those years ago.

Now I have good memories of a March 13th to look back on every year, and not just think "Oh yeah, that's the date I missed the best aurora in years."

How the 13 March 2022 aurora unfolded

Sunday night’s display started subtly, as a pale arc low came into view low in the north, stretching from the northwest to the northeast.

It appeared grey to my naked eye, but had a very obvious green hue on images taken through my DSLR camera.

As the minutes passed the arc started to brighten, and short stubby rays began to stab up from it, again clearly visible to the naked eye but much more obvious on camera.

Soon the rays began brightening, and growing higher and higher, and pale greens and pinks became visible to my eye too, not just on my camera...

An aurora display of 13 March 2022 from Cockermouth, Cumbria, UK.
Credit: Stuart Atkinson

And then it went nuts. By 11:30pm the aurora was dancing above the houses, with green search-beams shooting up into the sky.

Along with many people across the north of the UK, and others further south who were blessed with clear skies, I watched entranced as the display continued, activity ebbing and flowing.

Even though its brightness and colours were watered down a little by the almost full Moon that was shining in the sky it was the best display of the aurora I had seen for several years, and when it finally ended around a 00:45 I had taken many images.

If you missed the celestial light show on March 13th don’t worry.

We can expect, with some confidence, that more displays will occur over the next year or couple of years.

The Sun has a cycle of activity, and we’re coming out of one of the troughs of our current solar cycle, which is Solar Cycle 25, and heading back up towards a peak again.

Looking back at recent solar cycles reveals a decline in sunspot numbers. Early indications suggest this trend is likely to continue in cycle 25

This means there’ll be more solar flares happening, some of which will trigger displays of the aurora if the circumstances are favourable.

If we’re lucky we might even get to see a storm like the one that lit up the sky 33 years ago. We’ll just have to cross our fingers.

How do you know when the Northern Lights might be visible from where you live?

There are many apps you can now download onto your phone or tablet that will send you alerts if an aurora might be visible to you.

There are also some excellent space weather websites you can check for heads up warnings of activity.

Perhaps the best way of ensuring you don’t miss the next big aurora is to join an aurora-watching or -hunting group on Facebook.

Try AuroraWatch UK or the AuroraWatch UK Facebook group.

They always keep a very close eye on space weather, and let their members know well in advance when conditions are looking promising, then alert members when a display is beginning.

Advertisement

They’re also great places to find good, practical advice on observing and photographing the aurora.

Authors

Stuart atkinson astronomy writer
Stuart AtkinsonAstronomy writer

Stuart Atkinson is a lifelong amateur astronomer and an author of popular astronomy books.

Sponsored content