A recent article in the British newspaper The Express titled, “Northern Lights in the UK: Can you watch Aurora Borealis from UK? Where can you see it?” raises interesting questions and comparisons with historical events. It also appears to reinforce the climate forecasts for the next few decades.
Sir Edmund Halley (1656 – 1742) was one of the great astronomers in history. He proved his science in the best way possible by making an accurate prediction. He predicted the return of a comet that they then named after him. I became familiar with his work while working on the climate record of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) at Churchill, Manitoba.
The record was given a great scientific boost when in 1768/9 two astronomers, William Wales and Joseph Dymond arrived in Churchill to measure the Transit of Venus. Halley first identified this event and devised a procedure to gather data to determine the distance of the Earth from the Sun. This distance was critical to accurately testing Newton’s theory of gravity. A Transit occurred in 1761, but lack of knowledge and a useable technique resulted in failure. The 1769 Transit was critical because another Transit would not occur for 105 years.
Sir Neville Maskelyne, President of the Royal Society, sent the astronomers. They brought a range of instruments made specifically for them by the Society to carry out a range of scientific measures including thermometers and barometers. They left them at Churchill where the HBC employees continued to maintain some of the earliest instrumental records in North America.
Human Caused Global Wa... Best Price: $6.98 Buy New $11.13 (as of 02:55 EDT - Details) In an interesting irony, Halley’s life spanned the coldest portion of the Little Ice Age with the nadir in 1680. To my knowledge, he did not write about this, but he did write about astronomical events related to it. For example, he was invited by the Royal Society to visit Scotland to observe and submit a report on the newly seen Aurora Borealis. His submission was published in their Philosophical Transactions, in 1714 under the magnificent title,
An account of the late surprizing appearance of the lights seen in the air, on the sixth of March last; with an attempt to explain the principal phænomena thereof; as it was laid before the Royal Society by Edmund Halley, J. V. D. Savilian Professor of Geom. Oxon, and Reg. Soc. Secr.
His abstract is very different from those we see in today’s academic or scientific journals, but this is a time when the title scientist did not exist. He wrote,
The Royal Society, having received accounts from very many parts of Great Britain, of the unusual lights which have of late appeared in the heavens ; were pleased to signify their desires to me, that I should draw up a general resation (sic) of the fact, and explain more at large some conceptions of mine I had proposed to them about it, as seeming to some of them to render a tollerable solution of the very strange and surprizing phænomena thereof.
He knew about them from earlier reports, and he also knew about their relationship with sunspots. He knew about sunspots from Galileo’s work but had not seen them either because his life also spanned a period with very few sunspots. The diagram shows the most accepted reproduction of sunspot numbers with only a few over Halley’s lifetime.