The early months of 2016 were an exceptional time for seeing the northern lights in Ireland, from Donegal all the way down to Cork. This is quite the rare occurrence. Hopefully, they will be back with a green bang this winter (although, it might take a long drive to the edge of nowhere and for a cold night of waiting in uncertainty!)
The aurorae are not just exclusive to earth – they occur on other planets, and like earth, they are visible close to the planet’s magnetic poles. Not only is the aurora borealis gorgeous, the auroral current can also be used for transmitting and receiving telegraphic dispatches. Yes they can be used like radio wires!
This in fact happened on September 2, 1859, on the wires of the AmericanTelegraph Company between Boston and Portland. The following account came from between Boston and Portland.
Portland: “Please cut off your battery, and let us see if we can work with the auroral current alone.”
Boston: “I have already done so. We are working with the aid of the aurora alone. How do you receive my writing?”
Portland: “Very well indeed – much better than when the batteries were on; the current is steadier and more reliable. Suppose we continue to work so until the aurora subsides?”
Boston: “Agreed. Are you ready for business?”
Portland: “Yes, go ahead.”
This went on for a period of two hours. After the current from the aurora subsided, the battery was reconnected. The world is an amazing place!
You are not likely to see auroras in Ireland in summer, because the sky is usually too bright. But a good time to see Auroras is in winter at the end of the year. The phenomenon, which sees the sky light up in green and sometimes red, are named after the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek name for the north wind, Boreas. The name was chosen by Pierre Gassendi in 1621.
An aurora lights up the night skies when ionised particles from the sun hit the earth’s atmosphere and react with the gases. On earth it’s the oxygen which is the gas in question. Discrete aurorae often display magnetic field lines or curtain-like structures, and can change within seconds or glow unchanging for hours.
The northern lights have had a number of names throughout history. Indigenous people of Canada, called the Cree, call this phenomenon the “Dance of the Spirits.” In Europe, in the Middle Ages, the auroras were commonly believed to be a sign from God. Its southern counterpart, the aurora australis (or the southern lights), has almost identical features to the aurora borealis and changes simultaneously with changes in the northern auroral zone.
The chance of seeing the lights is better in areas where light pollution is low and there are clear skies. They have been showing up in Ireland following the biggest solar storms in over six years. So if you want to see them, be sure there has been a solar storm first.
Happy night light hunting!