Their majestic and ethereal beauty is a rarity in the night skies of Yorkshire but for stargazers in the right place at the right time this week, the reward was the awesome sight of one of nature’s most stunning phenomena, the Aurora Borealis.
Sightings of the spectacular sky displays, which are better known as the Northern Lights, are usually best enjoyed at high latitude regions, in the likes of Iceland, the far north reaches of Norway and remote parts of Scotland, but they were there for all to see, in wondrous shades of green and red over parts of Yorkshire late on Thursday evening as well as some other areas of England.
It was spots near the coast and from lofty moorland perches in our region, where light pollution is least intrusive, that offered the clearest skies and most impressive views, according to the Scarborough and Ryedale Astronomical Society.
Andy Exton, the Society’s secretary, was among its members who ventured out into the countryside, and seawards, armed with a camera to capture lasting memories of the night the region’s skies unusually dazzled with a glorious array of colour.
“A few of our members headed out in different parties across the Scarborough and Ryedale area,” Mr Exton said.
“Some of our members from near Malton headed onto the Howardian Hills. I live in Scarborough town centre and went up to Ravenscar on the Moors to see them, and then back into Scarborough to look out at them across the North Bay.
“We were lucky - we had ventured out a few weeks ago hoping to see them and saw nothing - so we headed out the other night with trepidation, thinking they might not show but as we were driving up from Scarborough to Ravenscar towards Whitby we could see them in the sky ahead of us - a green glow out towards the sea.”
It was a beautiful sight, he said.
“It was breath-taking. There was a strip of green and later on a red hue above it and then the black of the night sky at the top, so at one stage the night sky was lit up in three different shades.
“When I’d stopped and set my camera equipment up, out of the corner of my eye I saw something quite bright and a part of the sky opened up and was filled with a dark red area.
“You could see the light moving around and its structure shifting. It is the first time I have ever seen the Northern Lights and it will live long in the memory for some time to come. It gave you such a feeling of ‘wow’.
“I spent three hours out there and they were clear to the naked eye until about 10.45pm and then they started to fade.”
Melanie Moss, of Wetwang in the Yorkshire Wolds, said she got a great view: “It was mind-blowing to see them so bright in Yorkshire, you don’t expect such a good show this far south. I saw them last year for the first time whilst on the Hebrides but last night was even better. It makes standing in the cold weather worthwhile.”
Rene Oudmaijer, a professor at the Physics and Astronomy School at the University of Leeds, explained the science behind the natural wonder in simple terms.
“A compass always points North. Its magnetic needle is being pulled in that direction because the Earth is like a magnet. Its magnetic field acts as a shield for dangerous particles from space.
“The Sun bombards Earth with electric charges but the magnetic field of the Earth acts as a shield and deflects them and they move to the North or the South of the Earth as if they were drawn in through a funnel, and that’s happening all the time but sometimes when a lot of charges are being directed from the Sun to the Earth, the shield doesn’t work as effectively and these charges are hitting Earth a little bit earlier, further to the South such as in Yorkshire.
“On Thursday, we witnessed the result of a huge burst of particles which had been travelling from the Sun for one-and-a-half to two days and they breached the shield a little bit. When this happens, the electric particles meet the molecules in the Earth’s atmosphere and they do something interesting.
“It’s a similar effect to turning on an electric tube light and as we’ve seen the results can be spectacular.”
Were you one of the lucky ones?
The aurora are most commonly seen above the magnetic poles of the northern and southern hemispheres but their appearance over the skies of Britain are a far rarer event, occurring only two or three times a year. Scientists say that a huge solar event, known as a coronal mass ejection, that took place last week was responsible for the lights being visible in places as far south as Gloucestershire, Essex and Norfolk. Another stellar event in our skies is due early this month when Jupiter is set to be at its highest point in our skies for many years to come.