Page last updated at 18:22 GMT, Sunday, 14 February 2010

Solar flares 'turn on' Northern Lights

By Steven McKenzie
Highlands and Islands reporter, BBC Scotland news website

Aurora borealis
The Aurora Borealis has been celebrated in song

A question posed to Aberdeen tourist information staff could get easier to answer as an "awakening" Sun raises chances of seeing the Aurora Borealis.

Tourism staff have been asked in the past when the "lights were turned on".

Experts have been reporting that the sun was stirring after a period of low activity.

Increased eruptions from the Sun - including solar flares - were expected to make the aurora, also known as the Northern Lights, a more frequent event.

Visitors unaware that the aurora was a phenomenon related to the Sun's activity would ask tourism staff what time they were switched on each night.

Many elements of our natural and cultural heritage capture the imagination of visitors and occasionally we do get asked a question which raises a smile
Ken Massie

The Aurora Borealis is also celebrated in the local song, The Northern Lights of Old Aberdeen.

Prof Eric Priest, of the Solar and Magnetospheric Research Group at the University of St Andrews, said the chances of seeing the aurora were likely to improve as the sun heads for what is known as a solar maximum.

He said: "The Sun's activity varies with an 11-year cycle and when it is more active there are more eruptions from the Sun called coronal mass ejections - some of which are related to flares.

"When they reach the Earth after about two days they produce an enhanced Aurora Borealis.

"In order to see it clearly you need to be away from lights and also as far north as possible, and so on those two counts Scotland is a great place to see the aurora."

'Fantastic example'

Eric Walker, of the Highlands Astronomical Society, said the north of Scotland had seen impressive displays of the aurora in the past.

He said: "It is indeed exciting to hear that sunspot activity is on the rise again.

"We have been in one of the deepest sunspot minima for the last couple of years, 2008 was the second blankest year in a century, and for lovers of the Northern Lights this has been a lean period indeed.

Mr Walker added: "Sunspot activity appears to be linked to the frequency and intensity of the beautiful aurora.

Aurora borealis
The aurora pictured over the Highlands in 2005

"In autumn 2004 and winter 2005 there was a tremendous burst of intense aurora activity. In 2005 the activity was so intense that the aurora activity was directly above the Scottish Highlands and we were able to look into the auroral corona itself."

Ken Massie, VisitScotland regional director for Aberdeen City and Shire, said the aurora was a potential draw for visitors.

He said: "The north east is not only an area of rich culture but also stunning natural heritage.

"The Northern Lights are a fantastic example of this and any visitor who is privileged enough to have experienced them will undoubtedly have a memorable and unique holiday.

"Many elements of our natural and cultural heritage capture the imagination of visitors and occasionally we do get asked a question which raises a smile.

"However, the staff in our VisitScotland information centres are always on hand to share their expertise and enthusiasm for the local area and all it has to offer."

'Space weather'

Scientists and astronomers in the UK and US have been making close observations of the Sun's activity.

On Thursday, the Solar Dynamics Observatory was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

The observatory is designed to acquire detailed images of Earth's nearest star to explain variation in its activity.

An active Sun can disrupt satellite, communication, and power systems at Earth - especially when it billows charged particles in Earth's direction.

Scientists want to see if they can forecast this "space weather" better.

The Solar Dynamics Observatory will assist this drive by investigating the physics at work inside, on the surface and in the atmosphere of the Sun.

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