Star gazers: how to see the northern lights in St Andrews

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Success! Photo: Freya Coursey
Success! Photo: Freya Coursey
Success!
Photo: Freya Coursey

Over the Christmas holiday, I had a conversation with a few friends from home about our favourite memories of university so far. Theirs ranged from drunken antics in the centre of Newcastle to meeting a current beau at an arcade. When I recounted to my old friends my favourite memory from my three years at St Andrews I was met with open mouths and glances of jealousy.

I was in first year and drinking with Canoe Club when one knowledgeable bean declared that the northern lights could be seen that night and that we needed to head to the pier immediately. Around twenty of us sat along the pier with our legs dangling over the side, with a bottle of whiskey being passed along the line “for warmth.” Our gaze was firmly fixed up above, at both the astonishingly clear starry sky and the flashes of green dancing among the constellations. I had a hangover and a sore neck the next morning, but it was so worth it.

Are you feeling a bit jealous now, too? Well read on to learn how you can increase your chances to see the northern lights in St Andrews this semester. 

What are the northern lights?

First things first, when you and your friends are gazing up at the sky you should have in your arsenal something intelligent sounding to say about them. The lights we can occasionally see in St Andrews are called the northern lights or the Aurora Borealis because they occur in the auroral zone associated with the North Pole. The name Aurora Borealis comes from the Roman goodness of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek name for the north wind, Borealis. The northern lights are colourful displays of light that are caused by collisions of charged particles from the earth’s atmosphere and the sun, which cause the air particles to light up. The colours can range from vivid greens to intense reds and can be between 50 and 400 miles above the earth’s surface.

How can I find out when they are visible in St Andrews?

AuroraWatchUK provides ‘Aurora alerts’ via Twitter and Facebook to inform followers when and where the lights may be visible. The Met Office also offers more scientific and complex information regarding the science behind Aurora forecasts and space weather forecasts for those of you with a scientific disposition. Also keep an eye on local Facebook pages such as Overheard in St Andrews or even YikYak, as people in the past have shared information or photographs of the northern lights on these platforms.

How can I increase my chances of seeing the northern lights?

Forgive me if I am stating the obvious, but seek darkness and a high position. Get out of the town and its associated light pollution. Our poor late-night transport links makes this challenging but, speaking from personal experience, heading towards the far end of West Sands will sometimes suffice. Cloud clover can impede the view, so head out on a clear night if possible. They are also most active around the equinoxes, which occur in March-April and September-October. For the brave or truly committed among you willing to burst the bubble, head further north towards the Highlands and Islands to better your chances. If you still have not made spring break plans, consider an Aurora Borealis hunting trip across Scotland.

Any other advice?

Wear warm and waterproof clothes, take a torch and be patient. Even if solar activity has been detected, there are clear skies and you have been watching for a few hours, there are still no guarantees. Patience and persistence will be essential.

Do not go alone, especially if you plan on heading to the beach. Not just for safety reasons but because it is more fun and memorable to share the excitement of seeing the northern lights with friends or significant others. And if you do not see them at least you have spent an evening with great company and hopefully somebody to snuggle up with for warmth.

Finally, look with your eyes, not with your camera or phone. Your iPhone does not have the capability to capture the vivid colours high in the night sky, and it will be too dark for selfies. So leave the phone in your pocket, look up at the stars and let yourself feel lost in our breath-taking and ever expanding universe.

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