Science, Medicine and Technology

Northern Lights This Far South? Subhana’Allah!

‘He is Allah, the Creator, the Maker, the Fashioner. His are the most beautiful names. All that is in the heavens and the earth glorifies Him, and He is the Mighty, the Wise.’ (59:25)


Behold the majesty of Allah’s creation as the ethereal dance of the northern lights illuminates the night sky, reminding us of the profound interconnectedness between the natural world and the divine. Last night, Aurora Borealis was visible with breathtaking vividness and intensity across the UK. As I raced to the roof to catch a glimpse of this magnificent sight, I couldn’t believe how lucky we are that, by the grace of Allah, we are able to see from the comfort of our homes a view many people travel across the world and pay thousands to see. But how is it that a sight usually restricted to areas close to Earth’s magnetic poles is suddenly visible so far south? And what causes these lights to appear in the dark night sky?

Auroras are caused by charged particles entering the atmosphere as a result of disturbances in the earth’s magnetosphere (or magnetic field). These disturbances are caused by a stream of charged particles coming from the sun known as “solar wind”. Usually, the earth’s magnetosphere redirects these particles to the north and south poles, hence why Aurora Borealis is usually only visible near the poles.

Right now, we are approaching “solar maximum”, the highest point of solar activity in the sun’s 11 year cycle, where sunspots and CMEs (coronal mass ejections) are naturally at their highest. On Thursday, May 9th, the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Centre issued a severe warning for a geomagnetic storm watch for the first time since 2005, with 5 CMEs headed directly to Earth this weekend. The impact and intensity of these CMEs disturb the magnetic field, making the lights visible at the point of impact.

A geomagnetic storm is a temporary disturbance of the earth’s magnetosphere caused by CMEs or solar wind originating from coronal holes. They take place during times of high solar activity and their effects on the earth’s magnetic field can disrupt electrical systems such as satellites, and the power grid causing electrical blackouts, Wi-Fi and cellular signals, and radio communication.

As for how Auroras are caused, CMEs from the sun (ejections of magnetic field and highly ionised plasma from the sun) interact with charged particles such as electrons and protons in the earth’s magnetosphere which cause them to precipitate into the atmosphere. These charged particles then collide with and ionise gases such as Oxygen and Nitrogen. This causes them to reach an excited state (ionisation). When these gases return to their ground state, they emit a photon corresponding to the energy of the particle that ionised them. These photons make up the lights of varying colours and frequencies which we call the northern lights.

As I spent my evening pondering these questions, I couldn’t help but marvel at the beauty I was surrounded by, the skies glorifying and giving testament to their creator. It was as if the lights of heaven suddenly became visible. It’s remarkable how every aspect of nature has been created just right to sustain life, the northern lights are evidence of an atmosphere designed to protect us from the harms of the sun. It’s amazing how even now as I am witnessing the most mesmerising event in my lifetime we are being protected by Allah’s grace. Instead of a deadly interference that would wipe out our power grids and satellites (which would inevitably lead to problems such as food shortages), we simply get to witness this beautiful wonder in the sky. It was a truly surreal experience.

About the Author: Muneeb Maaz is a UCL graduate Physicist and Energy Analyst with a keen interest in sustainability and scientific research.