Despite predictions that this year would be a very active one for the northern lights, and the large groups of foreign tourists lured here in the hope of seeing them, they have been remarkably quiet so far. It’s hard to get one’s head around just how impossible it is to predict anything when it comes to northern lights.

That’s not to say they haven’t appeared at all. They have, usually the one night we have no-one staying here. It feels almost deliberate. There have been some nights of moderate activity – visible in wildly leaping coloured lines on the ‘magnetogram’ – but on each of these occasions a thick layer of cloud has been in the way. Sometimes, if we look on the internet at the large camera pointing at the sky here, we see a tantalising green glow through the cloud cover. It’s possible to see it looking on the computer screen, but step outside and there’s nothing there.

Some people staying here last week were out walking nearby in the hope of seeing some aurora. They met an excited Japanese tourist who showed them the image on her camera screen – a thick wedge of pale green sitting close to the northern horizon. They couldn’t see it in the sky, but looking at the camera, they knew it was there. They were in the presence of the aurora at least. Just the thought of it was enough.

I feel that way when I read reports and forecasts. Just thinking about the idea of space weather transports me to a more wondrous place and lifts my spirits. Down here on planet Earth I am subjected to a daily diet of weather reports, usually of no significance, and nothing I can’t see with my own eyes. Space weather, on the other hand, takes me above the stratosphere where the solar winds are at play. Boulder, Colarado is the place I go to connect with these wonders: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has real-time solar wind pages showing speed and dynamic pressure, small arrows shivering up and down, presumably with the flow of the solar winds.

NOAA cares about space weather because it cares about the environment for satellites, and it cares about the possibility of radio blackouts affecting flights and machinery. Somebody has to care.

There are numerous sites detailing measurements of electron flux at geosynchronous orbit and of the interplanetary magnetic field. I’ve learnt to pick out things that indicate a likelihood of seeing the northern lights. I get excited when I read that ‘at 03/1130 UTC, the lower energy particle flux reported by the EPAM instrument aboard the ACE spacecraft rose sharply and then leveled off while some of the lower energy channels declined’. Who wouldn’t? Just the thought of it…whatever it is..

Tonight I read there are ‘coronal hole high speed stream effects’. It’s a clear sky and I’m looking forward to them. Whatever they are.