The northern lights (aurora borealis) are an astonishing sight and many people include this natural phenomenon on their "bucket list". They can be seen regularly during the autumn and winter in North Uist where the extremely dark sky, the sea and interesting coastline make for a unique experience.
The phenomenon is caused by charged particles emitted by the sun being carried on the solar wind into the earth's atmosphere. The earth's magnetic field deflects these particles towards the poles, where they interact with molecules such as nitrogen and oxygen in the earth's atmosphere and deposit energy which causes the molecules to glow. Each type of molecule radiates its own colour. For example, nitrogen is red and oxygen is green. The most common colours seen are green and a red/purple hue.
The best place in the UK to see the aurora is northern Scotland which is on the same latitude as southern Norway. If there is enough solar activity and the conditions are favourable the aurora can be seen further south in Northern England, Wales and Ireland. However, the further north you are, the more likely you are to see them.
The Outer Hebrides are an excellent location to see the aurora due to their latitude and low light pollution. According to amateur astronomers, the the sky above areas of the North Uist coast have "Bortle 1" (the best possible) dark sky conditions which means the skies here are as dark as the best internationally recognised official dark sky areas. These conditions are very rare in the UK and comparable with the skies found deep in the Scandinavian forests.
From the garden at Balranald Bay View Self Catering Cottage, the dancing aurora can be seen reflecting in the sea over the bay and on still nights when the water is calm this is a jaw dropping spectacle. For photographers, the coastline and small offshore uninhabited islands add interest to the landscape.
Even if the aurora does not make an appearance, the star gazing is incredible due to the "blackness"of the night sky. Sitting outside in the garden under a star filled sky watching the aurora whilst listening to the sounds of the wading birds and the sound of the sea with a mug of hot chocolate (and endless refills from the kitchen only a few steps away) is truly special.
When is the best time to see the Northern Lights?
The solar wind is constant but the solar activity follows an approximately 11 year cycle which affects the chances of seeing the aurora at any particular time. The last peak of activity (solar maximum) was in 2014. Since 2021 the solar activity has increased and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predict that the next peak in solar activity will occur around 2025. Hopefully the next few years will give us all a great chance of seeing the northern lights here in the UK.
The best months to see the aurora are from late September to late March/ April. There is often increased solar activity around the autumn and spring equinox. In 2022 the spring equinox is on the 20th March and the autumn equinox is on the 22nd of September. The aurora is easier to see around the new moon and on a clear night and the colours can start to appear in the northern sky a couple of hours after sunset. Officially, peak activity is said to occur usually between 9 pm and 3 am but it is definitely worth starting to look a couple of hours earlier. Here on North Uist some of our best photographs have been taken around 7pm. The human eye is most sensitive to the colour green and this is the commonest colour to see. If you suspect there may be an aurora developing it is worth taking an image with a camera which is much more sensitive to colour than the naked eye and which may also reveal other colours that would otherwise remain invisible.
For more information and to sign up for aurora alerts visit https://aurorawatch.lancs.ac.uk or visit the Western Isles Facebook page for local information and alerts https://www.facebook.com/AuroraWatchWesternIsles/