Northern Lights

Many people travel as far as Alaska in an attempt to see the Northern Lights but, in fact, they are easily seen from the more northern parts of the UK and Lewis, at 58 degrees north, is as far north as Canada or the south of Alaska! The key to seeing the lights is having very limited light pollution and, of course, the weather and sun conditions.

Spring 2013 through to the end of 2014, and even on into the Autumn of 2015, proved an ideal time for watching the Northern Lights on Lewis and for several periods there were lights seen nearly every night. One local photographer who devotes a lot of time to photographing the lights estimated that in 2014 he got Aurora photographs on nearly 70 nights. The night of 27th February produced a spectacular display and many people consider it one of the best nights of Aurora watching they have had on the island, or anywhere else for that matter. Autumn 2013 gave several excellent displays and was expected to have been the peak of sightings for this solar cycle with October and November on the downside of the slope as the solar cycle declines normally being the best time to see a spectacular display. On one October night in 2013 Dollanna rushed over to inform some French visitors that there was a display in progress and they managed to get to see the aurora for the first time, to their amazement. On the night of 7th October 2015 she also went over to the cottage to alert the visitors to the aurora that may be seen in the video above and there have been quite a few nights when the aurora have been visible in 2015 and 2016 despite the peak of the solar cycle being long since over.

The Northern Lights are caused by the sun throwing out very energetic particles which then collide with gas in the upper atmosphere of the earth and this produces the lights that we see. Up until 2011, the sun had been relatively inactive for a few years as part of its normal cycle and the current cycle is likely to be, as predicted, fairly weak. The current cycle is starting to decline and so although we can still have spectacular events the balance of probability is that they will be reducing in number but even Autumn 2015 has given visitors lots of chances to see the Northern Lights. If we are entering a Maunder Minimum, as predicted by many scientists, then it could be several hundred years before really good displays of Northern Lights return. In theory the next solar maximum should occur around 2024/25 but if we are entering a Maunder Minimum then there may not be much activity during this next cycle. If you REALLY, REALLY want to see Northern Lights in your lifetime then you need to do something about it right now as once the sun activity declines then there will be nothing to see, no matter where you travel to.

Lewis is the ideal destination for viewing the northern lights as with a relatively small population there is little in the way of light pollution - no matter where you go the northern lights are generally not bright enough to be seen over city lights.

The weather on earth, as well as on the sun, is also a big factor as for best viewing you need a cloudless sky and in the UK that is something it is impossible to predict. Lewis, being low lying and not having any significant mountains often has less rain and cloud than you might expect as there are no hills to force the Atlantic air upwards to condense and form clouds. Over the 2013 - 2014 period photographers on Lewis have managed spectacular Aurora photos on almost every night there was activity while people in other areas were often seeing nothing because of cloud.

In mid-summer there is no real darkness on Lewis and so the months around mid-summer are not ideal for observing the night sky. However, in winter the hours of daylight are short and so the months from about September through to March give good dark skies for observing both the stars and the Northern Lights. For some reason which is not fully understood the Autumn months appear to give the best chance of seeing the Northern Lights with the end of October and November being the best times based upon historical sightings.

With this in mind the visitor to Dollag's cottage should be alert to the possibility of a spectacular display of the Northern Lights and on clear nights when there is little or no cloud in the sky it is worth casting an eye to the heavens. Even if you are doing other things be sure to take a look as one  visitor last September was surprised, coming back from some fishing, to find the sky alive with Northern Lights which he watched from the front step of the cottage. Even if there is no solar activity you are certain to be rewarded with a starscape to amaze and awe as the lack of light pollution leaves the stars, planets and Milky Way easily visible to the naked eye.

The following links will give some indication of the chances of Northern Lights, the spaceweather site can usually give 2 - 4 days warning of suitable conditions here on earth by monitoring the release of charged particles from the sun and the magnatometer shows the current conditions allowing the visitor to see if there is any activity on a given night:

the web side giving good aurora forecasts

Aurorawatch web side with live magnetometer data showing if aurora are likely at present
Dollag's Cottage @ 7 South Shawbost