Northumberland Northern Lights slideshow; plus 10 things to know if you're in the dark about the aurora borealis

The recent spectacular show of the Northern Lights, which could be seen in Northumberland and heralded the New Year 2016, surpassed any man-made fireworks display on the first night of the year.

Here is a slide show of pictures of the dancing lights by our photographer Jane Coltman and Gazette readers - and if you're in the dark about what the Northern Lights are, here are 10 questions answered:

The aurora borealis at Holy Island on New Year's Day, by Jane Coltman.

The aurora borealis at Holy Island on New Year's Day, by Jane Coltman.

What is it?

The aurora borealis is an amazing natural light phenomenon caused by collisions between electrically-charged particles released from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere and collide with gases such as oxygen and nitrogen.

How do the particles get here?

An opening in the sun’s atmosphere allows electrons and protons to flow out. A large opening, such as a coronal hole or sunspot, is usually needed for the high number of charged particles required to produce vivid displays. The particles are then blown from the sun to the earth by a ‘solar wind’.

Why the Northern Lights?

The display is seen around the magnetic poles of the northern and southern hemispheres. In the north, it is called the aurora borealis or northern lights and in the south, aurora australis or southern lights.

Why around the poles?

When the solar wind blows the charged particles towards earth, they are deflected by its magnetic field. But the earth’s magnetic field is weaker at either pole and therefore some particles enter the atmosphere and collide to emit light and produce the shimmering lights of the auroras.

Why the colours?

Variations in colour are dictated by the type of gas particles that are colliding. The most common colour is green and is produced by oxygen molecules located about 60 miles above the earth. The rarer red auroras are produced by high-altitude oxygen, at heights of up to 200 miles. Nitrogen produces blue or purple aurora.

How tall is the display?

The lights extend from 50 miles to 400 miles above the earth’s surface.

What to look for

Firstly, look north! The aurora borealis can appear in several forms, from small patches of light that appear out of nowhere to streamers, arcs, shimmering curtains or shooting rays that light up the sky with a bright glow.

Where’s best to catch it?

Generally, the northern hemisphere is better than the south. The closer to the pole the better and the least light pollution from towns and street lights the better. Unobscured views of the horizon also help - the further you are from the pole, the lower the aurora will be. Northumberland ticks all the right boxes!

What are the best conditions?

You need a cloudless sky (auroras are not visible through clouds) and a small or no moon (natural light pollution).

How to take the best pictures

Gazette photographer Jane Coltman offered the following advice for taking the best shots of the aurora: “I use as my starting point – 30 seconds, f2.8, ISO 1600, manual focus – put it on infinity and pull it back a tiny bit – and of course a tripod!”