On a crisp, cloudless Sunday at the start of Reading Week, the dancing green waves of the Northern Lights were visible above the long beaches of St Andrews. Though perhaps not as clear (or green) as they appear in more northern regions of the globe, the lights presented an opportunity for spectacular pictures and a unique chance to view a wonder of nature rarely visible so far south.
“It was gas”, said Henry Constable, a third-year Physics and Advanced Mathematics student, ironically describing the shimmering lights in the sky partially caused by Nitrogen and Oxygen.
Sightings of the northern lights were reported across every country in the United Kingdom and could even be viewed as far south as Cornwall on 26 and 27 February. News feeds were filled with photos sent in by viewers from locations as diverse as the Outer Hebrides, Brecon Beacons, and rural Kent. There was even a story of an easyJet pilot redirecting his flight path to give everyone on board an opportunity to see the lights from thousands of feet up in the air.
The rare sighting of the Northern Lights in more southern regions than they would typically appear can be explained by a particularly strong solar flare directed towards the Earth on Sunday, which made the lights visible further south of the North Pole than usual, and even more vivid than they would typically be in places in northern areas of Scotland where they more commonly appear.
It was too cloudy on Monday night to view the lights in St Andrews, but on Sunday they were quite visible as a sort of yellow-green vibrant beam stretching out across the sea from West Sands unto the nighttime horizon. Due to it being the start of Reading Week, the town was quieter than normal. But many of the remaining students headed down to the beach to find a dark spot to get a good view.
“I was walking home from a study session and the physics group chat was popping off [about the lights]. They said you could most likely see [the northern lights] from West Sands so I walked straight to my flat, grabbed my flatmates, and headed there”, said Constable.
Students looked for the darkest viewing spots to see the lights in all their glory. “We wanted to find somewhere dark, because, especially this far south, the Northern Lights are going to be quite far away, to begin with. Light pollution really affects the ability to see them”, he added.
Despite the number of students heading to the beach and taking photos, the lights were not particularly clear to the naked eye. They could be seen much more clearly through a camera lens, though, making for some incredibly spectacular — though perhaps slightly misleading — photographs. “I knew, being this far south they probably wouldn’t be at their brightest but I definitely thought they would be clearer than they were”, said Constable.
To the human eye, the Northern Lights from West Sands looked like a wide beam of light that could easily have been mistaken for light pollution or an illuminated cloud. The light pollution in and around St Andrews helps explain why that is the case. Although West Sands is one of the darkest spots in the town, there is still a fair amount of light when looking out over St Andrews Bay, especially towards Leuchars and the nearby air base, which is roughly the direction in which the lights came from. “At first, it was very anticlimactic, we legitimately thought it was just a cloud”, Constable said. “You couldn’t really see them with your eyes but taking pictures of them, they were very visible and colourful.”
He adds that those of his friends that brought high-resolution cameras were able to capture compelling photos of the lights, even while they were somewhat hard to view with the naked eye. “I guess because a phone has a bigger or more powerful sensor than our eyes,” he said.
Despite this, the spectacular photos and — the chance to check off a potential bucket list item — made it worth braving the cold February weather for the students who were able to see them. “It was still incredibly cool to see a wonder of nature right here in St Andrews and I took some pretty fire photos so I definitely thought it was worth it to go and see”, Constable said. “Lots of my friends who had left on Reading Week trips were pretty jealous even when I said you could barely see them.”
They caused a stir among students, with flurries of photos being sent through social media as the larger community shared in the excitement. “The second I saw them I texted my parents. My dad replied: ‘I have always wanted to see those’”, Constable said. “Everyone has a vision of the Northern Lights in their heads, these super bright shining, shifting lights in the sky. I learned about them in school and I am going to try to find them again, maybe somewhere like Iceland.”
The Northern Lights hold a somewhat mythical place in the minds of many, linked with the spiritual and mythological or — at the very least — a rare, once-in-a-lifetime, spectacle worth the effort to see. While modern insights have made it possible to reduce their wonder to scientific language, they carry a rich and long history, having often taken on a religious and spiritual significance and become touchstones in many Northern European histories of folklore and culture.
The Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis as they are known in Latin, are caused by solar storms on the Sun which create charged particles that then accelerate towards the other due to a solar flare. Though solar flares aren’t uncommon, most are simply deflected by the Earth’s atmosphere and related magnetic fields. But when particularly large flares get pulled into the Earth through the poles, particles from the Sun hit gases — such as Nitrogen and Oxygen — which in turn causes the vivid colours in the night sky. The same occurrence can take place in the Southern Hemisphere as well, where they are known as the ‘Southern lights,’ or Aurora Australis.
The particularly strong strength of the flare along with the clear skies over the United Kingdom on 26 and 27 February is what allowed for the lights to appear brighter and stretch much further south than normal. They appeared particularly bright in photographs because of the long exposure and advanced lenses on modern cameras, which can capture far more colour and light than the human eye.
In the centuries before they could be scientifically explained, the Aurora Borealis lent itself to countless myths and stories. Though this was particularly in places where they more commonly occur such as Scandinavia, there are some accounts of them from the British Isles as well. In Scotland, the northern lights were known as ‘Merry Dancers’ and were considered to be a manifestation of warriors at battle in the sky. The red spots in bloodstones — common in the Hebrides — were thought to be the blood of the fallen fighters.
There is a particular folk story about a young boy who fell asleep one night at sea on his fishing boat. Upon waking up the boy saw what he believed was a group of giants dancing around a bonfire in the sky. However, he soon realised that the giants were fighting and his boat was surrounded by a pool of blood in the water (likely the result of the darker red colours associated with particularly strong solar storms). Folk legends like this abound in the history of the Northern Lights. They have been captivating imaginations for centuries.
The lights were often considered a bad omen, and perhaps unsurprisingly — considering their somewhat ghostly, ethereal nature and red streaks — and thought of as a sign of an oncoming threat. One such example of this was in the late eighteenth century when, as happened this February, the lights could be seen across the United Kingdom. Many claimed they could hear the sound of fighting in the sky. Following the toppling of the French aristocracy and the subsequent outbreak of the Revolution across the Channel many felt that the lights had been sent as a warning — and that war would soon follow.
Interestingly, further North — where the Northern Lights are viewed more frequently — they inherited more positive connotations and were often connected to animals. In Sweden, fishermen thought the Northern Lights were a reflection of large schools of fish and, therefore, considered them to be a sign of a good day’s catch ahead. In Denmark, they were thought to be the debris left over from swans who had gotten trapped under ice, and which had then used their wings to force their way back out again, soaring into the sky and leaving a trail of light behind them.
With the summer nearing, the days getting longer, and the skies getting brighter, the existing opportunities to see the Northern Lights generally become more sparse. However, there is a possibility of more sightings in the coming weeks, for the lights can often be more active around the Spring Equinox on March 20th. In order to have the best chance of seeing the lights, the skies have to be clear and dark, and it is best to seek out a dark and removed viewing spot to optimise their visibility. Northward-facing coastlines are considered to be an excellent place to gamble at the chance to witness them.
The MET Weather Office offers updates on the Northern Lights and provides information that can help identify the viewing conditions on the nights when they are present.
Image: Ocean Yeung