The Northern Lights – Nature’s Greatest Light Show

09th July 2024

On 10 May this year, a truly great display of Northern Lights was visible from Goodwood, the best for 35 years.  What happened to cause such a grand spectacle at this time, and what are the chances that they will be visible again from the south of England in the not-too-distant future?  Local ‘Aurora Hunter’ Dr John Mason shares more about Nature’s greatest and most fascinating light show ahead of a fascinating evening of food and discovery at The Kennels on Thursday 10 October.

What causes the Northern Lights?

The Northern Lights are caused when electrically charged particles in the solar wind – originating from the Sun’s outer atmosphere – bombard the Earth’s magnetic field, squeezing it and buffeting it like a windsock on an airfield.  This causes particles to be accelerated and funnelled down into Earth’s atmosphere in a region around the north geomagnetic pole, forming a glowing ring known as the northern auroral oval. As these particles collide with atoms and molecules of oxygen and nitrogen high in the atmosphere they excite them to produce the light that we see as the aurora.  (In the southern hemisphere the phenomenon is known as the aurora australis or Southern Lights.) The words aurora borealis literally mean “dawn of the North.”

The intensity of the solar wind varies with the activity of the Sun.  This follows a roughly 11-year cycle and solar activity is currently very high and rising towards the peak of the latest 11-year cycle (cycle 25), which is expected either late in 2024 or early 2025. Major eruptions on the Sun, known as coronal mass ejections or CMEs, can also lead to a greater influx of particles causing the auroral oval to intensify and become more active - and to be visible from places much further south than normal, such as the South Downs and Goodwood.

Legends and stories about the Northern Lights

Some people believe that one of the earliest accounts of an auroral display – dating back 2,600 years – is in the Book of Ezekiel in the Old Testament. Ancient people were awed by the aurora, just as we are today so there are many myths and legends about the Northern Lights.

The Finnish name for the aurora (revontulet) comes from a Sami or Lapp legend in which the tail of a fox running in the snow strikes the snow drifts, sending a trail of sparks into the sky. Revontulet literally means "foxfire".  According to some accounts, the Vikings believed the aurora was the beautiful maidens called Valkyries, which escorted those killed in battle up to the gods in Valhalla.

The Inuit of Alaska believed that the lights were the spirits of the animals they hunted, e.g. the seals, salmon, deer and beluga whales. The East Greenland Inuit believed the aurora to be the spirits of children who died at birth. Many Inuit groups thought the Northern Lights to be the spirits of the dead playing ball with a walrus head or skull.

Dr John Mason and his interest in the Northern Lights

Dr John Mason’s love affair with the aurora borealis, or Northern Lights, began on the night of 4/5 August 1972 when there was a rare auroral display visible from his home in Fontwell, near Arundel. This display followed a series of powerful solar storms that caused radio blackouts, interfered with satellites in orbit and apparently detonated US Navy mines off the coast of Vietnam.

He saw the display beginning as a faint glow to the north just before 11pm. It gradually intensified, a quiet arc developing, then a number of rays and brightening, with blue, pink and vivid greens. The display reached a climax just after midnight when pulsating rays stretched across the northern horizon and were so bright that they cast shadows.

John was fascinated by this and vowed to learn more about this incredible natural phenomenon.  After graduating from university he studied plasma physics, the formation of the solar wind and its role in affecting comets’ ion tails. Later he extended this to the effects of space weather and the aurora.

From the late 1980s, John started travelling regularly to the Arctic to witness the Northern Lights, to study and photograph its many forms, and later to accompany people who wanted to see them for themselves as a tour guide. He has witnessed Northern Lights displays from Alaska, the Yukon, Iceland and the far northern parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland.

Seeing them is addictive, almost like a drug, because no matter how wonderful an aurora one has seen, one always hopes for something better the next time!

Spend a fascinating evening with an eye to the sky for a fascinating look at the spectacle of the northern lights with Dr John Mason for an evening of wonder and discovery about Nature’s greatest and most fascinating light show. After a three-course dinner, you will explore the sky at night through Dr Mason's telescope on the Duchess Paddock.

Find out more about the Northern Lights Dinner & Talk taking place at The Kennels on Thursday 10 October.


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