The equinox, which falls on September 23, could provide a better chance than usual to witness the awe-inspiring sight of the northern lights, also known as the aurora borealis. The Earth’s magnetic field and the tilt of the planet at that time create favorable conditions for the occurrence of this natural light show. Although there is never a definitive guarantee of seeing the northern lights, the equinox increases the likelihood, rather than ensuring it.
According to David Moore, the editor of Astronomy Ireland magazine, the best locations in Ireland to catch a glimpse of the northern lights are the north coast of Northern Ireland and Mayo. These areas are ideal due to their unobstructed views of the Atlantic Ocean, along with minimal light pollution from cities and towns. Nevertheless, if the skies are clear, the northern lights can be visible from any part of the country.
The phenomenon of the northern lights begins after solar flares, or eruptions on the sun, release billions of tons of radiation into space. Approximately two days after these solar flares occur, the atomic particles hit the Earth’s atmosphere. Some of these particles become trapped in the Earth’s magnetic field and are drawn towards the North and South poles. When these particles collide with the atoms and molecules in the atmosphere, they create the vibrant colors associated with the northern lights.
To fully experience the aurora, it is essential to be away from man-made lights. Living in a town or city will only offer a view of major displays. The sun goes through cycles of activity every 11 years, and it is due to peak in 2025, making the next few years particularly opportune for seeing the northern lights.
Astronomy Ireland provides an aurora alert service, posting predictions each afternoon about the sky conditions for the night ahead, including the possibility of seeing the aurora. The lights can be observed at various times throughout the night, sometimes for several hours and sometimes for just a brief period.
While cloudy skies can hinder the viewing experience, the particles from the sun hit the atmosphere well above the clouds. Therefore, when there are clear skies, the northern lights can be visible in all their glory.