Prepare for nature's 2012 spectacular! Nasa predicts brightest northern lights display for 50 years... but solar activity could play havoc with technology.
Peak in activity could see problems for mobiles, GPS and National Grid
It is nature's most mesmerising lights show and it's about to get a whole lot better. Experts predict the northern lights will shine at the brightest levels seen for 50 years in 2012. Since 2007 the aurora borealis has been growing in intensity and will peak during the year after next, according to Nasa scientists.
2007: This shot of the lights above a building in Iceland shows an impressive but quite dim display
However, if the 2012 aurora are as big as expected, it could cause disruption to mobile phones, GPS and even the national grid.
The event will be caused by the Solar Maximum - a period when the sun's magnetic field on the solar equator rotates at a slightly faster pace than at the solar poles.
HOW THE NORTHERN LIGHTS FORM
Fast-moving charged particles from the sun known as 'solar wind' interact with Earth's atmosphere and are closely linked to the 11-year solar sunspot cycle.
Most of Earth is protected from this interaction by its magnetic fields, but at the poles the phenomena can be clearly seen.
When charged solar particles collide with Earth's air molecules, the energy produced is emitted as light.
Rings of light form around the poles called auroral ovals, but the rings can expand allowing the lights to be seen as far south as Scotland and in exceptional circumstances, even further.
The lights form high above Earth, usually above 40 miles and sometimes as much as 600 miles, higher than the Space Shuttle travels.
The solar cycle takes an average of around 11 years to go from one solar maximum to the next - varying between 9 to 14 years for any given solar cycle. The last Solar Maximum was in 2000 and NASA scientists have predicted that the next one in 2012 will be the greatest since 1958, where the aurora stunned the people of Mexico by making an appearance on three occasions. In 2012 scientists have stated that the 'Northern' lights should at least be visible as far south as Rome. Icelandic photographer Orvar Thorgiersson, from Reyjavik, is in the middle of a project to document the growing intensity of the phenomena. Regularly braving sub-zero temperatures for the last four years, the 35-year-old's photographs show how in 2007 the aurora is a much weaker emerald green against the Icelandic backdrop. By 2008 its rays have become tinged with colour, bright scarlet and orange glows have appeared as reflected against the serenity of the nearby lake. The ghostly coloured particle streams billow with silent grace as they hit the magnetic field of the Earth - protecting life on the planet from the potentially lethal solar wind.
Orvar said: '2012 will be the best, brightest and most dramatic opportunity to view the aurora in a long time.
2008: The aurora borealis above Kleifarvatn, Iceland, is slightly brighter
2009: An eerie looking-green glow covers a frozen lake and home in Iceland
'Now there are days when the lights are so bright you can read a book by them at night. They're brighter than the moon itself. 'By the year 2012 if you catch the moment the Sun is spewing out solar storms directly at the earth you will be truly awestruck. 'It will be like nothing you've ever seen before.' The brightness of the aurora depends on the activity of the sun, which bombards the Earth's with charged particles known as the solar wind.
2009: The lights above a signpost appear to be reaching their zenith but there's more to come
2010: This year the northern lights have produced some stunning scenes
Energy and light is released by the reaction which in turn causes the mesmerising effect seen on the surface of our planet. it is more visible at the poles because they gather vast quantities of the charged particles. 'The aurora is a magnificent display of light,' said Orvar. 'It's so intense and when you face it you feel an indescribable connection with nature's greatest event. 'What's fascinating is its unpredictability, I feel some nights like I'm going on a hunt. 'I read the scientific data on the web, grab my gear, and head out into the night, hoping for the best.'