Sky watchers in most parts of Ireland could potentially see the northern lights on Monday night with conditions providing the best opportunity to view the natural phenomenon for seven years.
The UK Met Office is predicting that a huge ejection from the coronal mass of the sun, which creates the northern lights, will be seen as far south as 52 degrees north.
The parallel of latitude extends from the highest point in Ireland, Carrauntoohil across to Dungarvan. Everywhere north of that line should have a chance of seeing the northern lights. Some northern light watchers are saying Ireland could be set to experience the best views of the phenomenon since March 2016, depending on cloud cover.
Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies Professor of Astronomy Tom Ray said the exceptional strength of the solar winds corresponds with a busy period in the sun’s 11 year cycle of activity.
“The sun’s corona, which is the area around the sun, releases magnetic energy and the particles are moving so quickly they escape the sun’s gravity all the way to Saturn and they have auroras as well,” he said.
“We can judge from the speed and the strength of it when it is going to hit the Earth’s atmosphere. It take a few days. The event is in the middle of the sun as we see it and it is pointing at us. That means we are going to have a whooper.”
He suggested that people find a flat horizon away from city lights to see them properly.
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Met Éireann forecaster Liz Walsh said it will be “touch and go” as to whether places have clear skies to see the aurora.
“Last night was a great night in the west of Ireland, but there will be breaks. It will be the luck of the draw.”
Astronomy Ireland said there is a possibility of a “great spectacle” in Irish skies on Monday night.
“Look in the north after sunset,” said David Moore, editor of Astronomy Ireland. “You should at least see an arc of light low in the north, and if the display picks up as expected this could move much higher in the sky. In the past, perhaps once a decade, we can even see it overhead from Ireland, when it is an incredible sight.”
The northern lights made a surprise appearance over Dublin on Sunday night. The aurora borealis, to give them their scientific name, were captured by a passenger on the 9pm flight between Liverpool and Dublin on Sunday night.
They were also spotted off the coast of Co Donegal with members of the public taking pictures of them over Buncrana and Rossnowlagh.
Martin Fleming, who tweets as @scenesofdonegal, published a time-lapse video of the lights at Dooey, Downings in Co Donegal.
They were also seen off Rosses Point in Co Sligo and even around Lough Neagh. Other sightings include the Causeway coast off the coast of Co Antrim.
In the UK they were seen as far south as Cornwall.
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The light spectacle, also known as an aurora, is usually most visible near the Earth’s magnetic north and south poles when high-speed electrically charged particles from space collide with gas molecules in Earth’s upper atmosphere.
The arrival of a coronal mass ejection from the sun can cause the annulus to expand, bringing the aurora to lower latitudes, and it is under these circumstances that the lights can be seen in the UK and Ireland, according to the UK Met Office.
Dozens of spectators shared their sightings across social media on Sunday, with some reporting seeing the spectacle as far south as Cornwall in the UK.
The Met Office in the UK shared a series of snaps taken by sky watchers on the Scottish island of North Uist, the village of Llysfaen on the north coast of Wales, and Cambridgeshire and Shropshire in England.
“A coronal hole high speed stream arrived this evening combined with a rather fast coronal mass ejection leading to aurora sightings across the UK,” the forecaster said in a tweet just after midnight.
One account with the Twitter handle Cornwall Skies shared a photo of what appeared to be an illuminated night sky.
“Looking north tonight in east Cornwall. There are no towns causing light pollution nearby to the north, just Bodmin Moor,” it said. “We are also a ‘dark sky’ area, I think this could be the aurora northern lights.”
Auroras usually occur in a band called the annulus (a ring about 1,865 miles across) centred on the magnetic pole. The arrival of a coronal mass ejection from the sun can cause the annulus to expand, bringing the aurora to lower latitudes, and it is under these circumstances that the lights can be seen in the UK, according to the Met Office.
Additional reporting: Guardian