HP Sunsets, Lough Fea Funnel Cloud & Ballintoy Sea Stacks Aurora Borealis - March 31st 2022

March 2022 turned out to be an excellent month for weather and sky action thanks to a strong prolonged high pressure set-up which produced back to back clear days and nights. The sunshine was actually very strong and despite a slight chill to the breeze it felt warm in sheltered locations, in fact, in some parts it reached 17 degrees C which is very respectable for N. Ireland at this time of year. Waking up to clear skies and feeling the warm sun on your skin on a daily bases was starting to become the norm, I even got my first tan of the season by sitting out under the afternoon sun while reading books on Irish tornadoes and the wonders of the solar system.

This type of high pressure quickly began to produce a lot of haze, especially when the wind eventually turned slack which reduced transparency, this in combination with Saharan dust presented me with countless sunset photo opportunities which became the focus of my photography. The evening of March 21st looked particular good for an impressive sunset, I knew from the look of the sky that the horizon haze would filter out the sun's intense light and allow the disk of the sun to become visible to the naked eye and hence photogenic. I drove out 40 min's before sunset with Rhua in the van with me and made my way into Moneymore, I decided to check out the chapel on the hill at the edge of town as I knew it offered a great view of the sky, I had never shot a sunset there before so I was keen to test it out.

I wasn't disappointed, as the sun dropped into the haze the disk became visible, first as a yellow orb then an orange globe, the Saharan dust certainly contributed to the spectacle, it really did look like a dusty desert sunset. I was using the Canon 600D with 100-400mm F/5.6 lens at 400mm, I didn't even take the tripod out of the van, I was hand holding these shots by leaning across a tall head stone in the graveyard with IS on while using live view to compose my shots. This is the full disk above the horizon minutes before setting, the horizon was flat and perfect here, however you can just make out the slant to the right which is the flank of Slieve Gallion.

This was my favourite image from the shoot, I noticed a flock of birds suddenly entering the field of view, I didn't know what species they were, I'm afraid I know very little about birds, likely Starlings or Crows, but they looked fantastic as they passed the sun, I pressed the shutter just in time to get this scene.

Bye bye sun, I really enjoyed that sunset, it was still mild and still, it looked more like June than March, I really felt grateful for such a fine spell of weather. I walked Rhua around the chapel grounds at dusk then headed back home.

During this period the sun had become the most active I've seen it since the last solar maximum. I spent several days visually observing the sun with my old 90mm ETX using the projection method, by that I meant I simply cellotaped two A4 sheets of paper onto a large Astronomy book and held it over the eyepiece then focused until the projected image was crisp and sharp. The scene was very impressive, I counted 6 active regions and 39 spots/pores during a casual look. The two main active regions near the meridian stole the show designated 2976 and 2975. The former was a huge single spot many times the size of Earth with a striking umbra and compact penumbra, however it was a looker not a doer, it's magnetic field was stable and hence the spot was benign. The latter on the other hand was a different entity, it was spread out over a larger area and contained many smaller spots with opposite polarity and a very unstable magnetic field, this was a proper storm on the sun, this single active region produced 17 eruptions on this day alone and over the course of several days would surpass more than 20 explosions.

Back to back M-class flares resulted in the release of several CMEs, these were expected to impact Earth in three days time and an aurora watch was issued which would be revised closer to the time. On March 25th I was driving back from the coast on yet another wonderful day when I decided to shoot the sunset once more with the intention of picking up those sunspots. I pulled into the lay by outside Garvagh and ran along the grass verge with the camera so I could find a gap in the hedge which allowed me a good clear view. The sky was cleaner this time with less haze inland so the disk required a shutter speed of 4000th/sec to get the correct exposure. When I pressed the shutter I was delighted with view on the LCD screen, I had captured both active regions as two large spots. I couldn't do much about the poles and lines however I like to think they add a sense of scale, this image is a deep crop from the 400mm frame.

March 29th would be the final warm sunny day as a cold front was expected to dive south overnight bringing rain and a massive drop in temperature which would bring the warm spell to a sudden end. I drove out with with Rhua for company with the intention of taking advantage of the sunshine by doing a little drone filming, I had no location in mind but on a whim I decided to drive to Lough Fea. As we made our way in that direction I noticed that area of the lough was in shadow and covered in cloud, I wanted to be in the sun and almost turned back when an instinct told me to keep going. I noticed the clouds in the vicinity of the lough were dark but also convective, I knew there was no convective outlook issued and I didn't see anything jump out on the models so I was surprised to see nice towering cumulus.

I should state now that you should always trust your instincts, and today I didn't which would soon cost me something very special. As I was driving my mind began to play an internal movie showing a funnel cloud appearing, then the movie showed me with no camera and missing it, one of those anxiety type dreams one gets, however this wasn't a dream as I was wide awake. I ignored the omen, it was just hopeful thinking. I pulled into the top car park and got Rhua out, I left the DSLR in the van and took the drone instead then Rhua and I went for a walk. I then did a visual assessment of the sky - old habits die hard and all that - I noted that the towers were short and somewhat mushy, in places they had indeed began to spread out like pancakes, I suspected a warm nose at the mid levels due to a capping inversion which shunted any further growth. On the positive side I noted a dark base on the far side of the lough and how slowly it was moving, the atmosphere felt warm and moist and there was no breeze, these I knew were good conditions for funnels. I didn't take my own observations seriously because of the cap and continued walking.

I walked behind a hedge and lost my view of the sky for several minutes, then I entered a clearance and casually looked to the west and I exclaimed ''holy sh*t''!, there hanging from that very base I had been observing was a fully formed funnel cloud. I was routed to the spot, like a Rabbit in headlights, frozen by shock and awe. The funnel was 3/4 of the way to the ground in the form of a striking dark rope which sported a pronounced graceful curve in its lower section, it was picture perfect, and I had no camera!, I cursed myself for not listening to my instincts. These things can vanish fast so there's seldom time to waste thinking about what to do next, the best solution is to always don't think, just react. I immediately sprinted 200m across the ground, passing a walker who no doubt was wondering why I was so excited, opened the van, got the 100-400mm onto the 600D and sprinted the 200m back to my spot.

The funnel had already retreated upwards higher towards the base and well clear from the ground, it had shortened and the curve was gone, it was now a rotating tube yet it seemed to not want to go. All the images I got were from that moment onwards, I will admit I was shaking from the run, the adrenaline and the excitement of seeing a funnel cloud, you would think by now I would be cool and calm shooting these after all the years spent capturing convective events but no, I still get the same emotional effect every time I see one, my hand was actually shaking which made shooting with the long lens a challenge, above was the first image.

It rose higher then paused, then came back down again for a second time, I was astonished how long it was visible for, I had plenty of time to take images and observe the vortex, I could see it spinning easily.

It morphed into an inverted cone, defied time by still hanging in full view, it never seemed to end, I couldn't believe it, I even had time to look around me away from the funnel to check my area, several people walked past me yet none of them even noticed the funnel at all which was shocking.

Then it turned into a small rope and suddenly vanished back into the cloud base. When I first saw it the time was 12.45 UT, now it was 13.05 UT, it had been visible for 20 min's, however factor in the time at the beginning before I first saw it the duration could be closer to 25 min's. This makes it the longest duration funnel I've ever witnessed, even longer than the big funnel of July 17th 2007. Even though this was a small funnel it was still an absolute thrill to experience, especially so early in the season. In fact, I just checked my log book, this is the earliest funnel I've ever captured. So what happened? I suspected a convergence zone combined with solar heating, weak instability and lift from the high ground was the likely cause. Storm photographer Owain Rice from Co. Down did a little back ground work and after studying skew-Ts noted that there was CAPE in the first 3km of the atmosphere with good moisture, however there was also a cap at the mid levels which explained the soft tops. I took this as a good omen of what could be on the cards this Summer when the bigger vorticies put on a show.

On March 30th/31st we received the exciting news we had been hoping for in the form of a very exciting spaceweather forecast. A fast moving CME moving at 1700km/sec would overtake the first slower CME, the interaction between both is known as a cannibal CME, when they hit strong to major storming was expected. NOAA had released a forecast showing G2 by 21.00 followed by G3 a few hours later, this had the potential to produce the best auroras in the northern hemisphere for many years. The forecast for N. Ireland was perfect with the Met Office going for clear skies all night long, the air would be clean thanks to the Nly breeze and cold air mass and the moon was absent so any auroras would be visible in dark skies, it's not often that we get such perfect conditions as these, and if NOAA were rite then it would hit during the evening and midnight hours for us, that has been even more rare in recent years.

My friends and I were of course skeptical, we had seen all this before and the hype usually ends with shattered dreams. We also knew that NOAA can be out with their timing, by hours, sometimes as much as 7 hours and at times they have been completely wrong and nothing happened at all. That being said we excepted the fact that his could be a long wait. We had two options available, sit at home looking at charts, then when something showed we drove to the coast, or just drive to the coast anyway and stick it out and hope for the best, we decided on the latter option.

A plan was put in motion and arrangements were made, Paul Martin met me in Cookstown, we purchased supplies then drove to the Co. Antrim coast where we met Nigel McFarland, Colleen Webb and Conor McDonald. We chatted for a while at the Causeway however we were put off within minutes by car headlights and head torches, we knew if things did kick off this place would be packed and with more cars arriving it can be like a bottle neck and one can feel trapped there. The Causeway is awesome for shooting aurora, however it's impossible to get a good time lapse during these big events with other people shining lights and walking into the frame so we decided to move to Ballintoy Harbour, one of my old favouruite places at the coast.

We spent hours at Ballintoy, the sky was perfectly clear however the cold wind was not nice to stand out in for any length of time. We drank brews and ate snacks as the hours ticked by and had a good laugh, I never took the camera out of the bag once. When we all get together some mad and bizarre conversations taken place, anything from testing each other on the main information of an atmospheric sounding for thunderstorms to half an hour spent talking about which tea bags are best, it always ends up in a laugh. We waited and waited and as we did so we got more and more tired and cold, the charts were dead and there was an overall sensation that this was yet another non-event.

Between 01.30 and 02.00, Conor, Nigel and Colleen called it a night and headed home as they had to be up early in the morning. Paul and I half contemplated doing the same but we had another brew and warmed up then both of us decided we won't be going home yet, we had come this far, we were not going back empty handed. Our mind set was as follows, we may forget about the aurora now, however the sky is beautiful and clear, let's do some astrophotography and enjoy ourselves. So late in the night we slowly made our way through the dark to the west between Ballintoy and White Park Bay where numerous sea stacks can be found. We bumped into another photographer called Graham Daly who had traveled all the way up from Cork, he was staying two full nights at the coast shooting astro and hoping for the aurora, a very nice fellow he was too and extremely dedicated, so we all hung out together on and off through the night, there was no one else there, just us three.

By 03.30 UT Paul and I had found a nice stack with rocky foreground we had never shot before, the tide was well out so we where able to venture across an area we wouldn't have been able to before at high tide. We liked it a lot, I began shooting a time lapse and Paul a star trail, we let the cameras work away then we took shelter in a cove between stacks trying to shelter ourselves from the cold wind which had now got stronger. We hunched down in the rocks hidden by the darkness, we had obtained perfect night vision, relaxed, and watched the sky. 45 min's later we noted a dramatic change to the sky, a bright glow had suddenly appeared, bright enough to wash out the stars lower in the sky, at first we thought it was sea mist or cloud but we soon ruled that out, we both began to get excited, we knew this had to be the aurora, had the CME hit? we could get no wifi at our location so we had to go old school and observe. The above image is one of the stills from the time lapse before that strange glow appeared. The lights to the lower right are not aurora, that was from light pollution at the other cottage at Ballintoy.

The glow got even stronger so Paul stopped his time lapse and checked the frame, the sky was pink and red, we had aurora. We then noticed several sections of enhancement within the glow close to the horizon, they looked like the glow from distant fires, only they were moving to the side like celestial spirits. Then from those regions the first beams of the night appeared, there was no question about what they were, Paul and I began to shout with joy, we talked to the sky telling nature she can do it, come on, put on a show, then the beams got stronger, at first one, then two, it seemed like the sky was coming alive. This is one of the exposures from the time lapse when this was happening.

It was game on, Paul and I were now in the zone, this is what we had been waiting for, our patience had finally been rewarded. I walked around the loose rocks trying to find a new composition, I captured this not far from Paul using the rocks to frame the aurora. The region near Capella seemed very fruitful for beams, it seemed there was almost a vertical ray there barely moving which really lent itself well for photography. Check out the glitter path of Capella reflecting upon the water.

There's something special and difficult to put into words standing beside these ancient stacks over the ocean, it's almost like being in the company with something very special, the longer we spent there and more we became one with nature, it felt like we had been accepted and were now part of the location. To think that this part of the coast and these rocks were once a seething and boiling lava flow mixing with the sea from inland volcanoes is difficult to comprehend. The tide was slowly ebbing its way in again filling the spaces between rocks and forming rock pools which really improved the scene as the aurora could now be seen reflecting on the water. I really wish I had carried my second camera with me however I left it as I wasn't expecting the aurora to show, in any event I was happy to concentrate all my efforts into using the one camera. This was now between 04.30 UT and 05.00 UT in the morning, this was yet another personal record for me, the latest aurora I've ever observed and captured on camera.

I then found a composition I was happy with and just as I did the aurora intensified, beams appeared and disappeared at random, at one stage six pillars could be seen at the same time, as they formed our excitement grew and we began talking to the sky again offering our encouragement. Two regions of strong rays appeared within Auriga and Perseus, we measured one ray at 20 degrees (40 full moon diameters) high extending well above Capella. We never saw any colours so the rays looked ghostly with the unaided eye, however the big sensor and high ISO of the camera revealed the colours that we couldn't perceive. This was my favourite image from the night, and from the current solar cycle. Pre-dawn Milky Way with aurora and big pillars reflecting on the sea with these majestic stacks. ISO8000, 13 sec exposure with 15mm F/2.8 lens at F/2.8 on full frame.

The time was 05.30 UT, this is a 16x9 crop version of another exposure. The beams seemed suspended animation which is why they look so striking on the images, we watched them grow, spike for an extended period, then they would divide into several intense pencil thin search lights then slowly creep across the ocean horizon from west to east.

We were enjoying ourselves so much we had forgotten that dawn was fast approaching, in no time the sky brightened and we realized or time was almost over. This was approximately 06.00 UT and a very unusual image, the fainter stars and Milky Way were almost washed from the sky by the strong twilight yet the auroral beams were still visible with their pinks and purples over a green arc against the blue hour of dawn. I've only twice before seen beams in strong twilight in my life. We made our way back to the vehicles then began the long drive home, I didn't get back until 07.30 UT and for Paul it would have been another hour after that. Despite feeling tired we were both buzzing from that wonderful glow that one gets from seeing something special in nature.

The following night, April 1st/2nd, was also expected to have aurora, NOAA had expected G1 or G2 conditions in response to a disturbance in the wake of the CME's passage. Despite only two hours sleep earlier I wanted to make the most of it as this was the last clear night in the forecast. I spent the afternoon at the coast drone filming then when darkness fell I met up with Nigel McFarland and Colleen Webb at Magheracross car park. We were astonished by what we saw, the place was packed with cars, apparently word had got out on social media about another aurora and everyone ventured out to see it. At one stage I counted 50 cars here and we heard the entire coast was packed all over, including inland locations. Many were disappointed as there was no strong display, I took this image of the Milky Way and picked up the purple glow of the aurora in this long exposure, I could also see it with the naked eye, however it never got any better and most members of the public would never have seen it.

That being said, I was delighted to see so many people taking an interest in the night sky and the aurora, I know for some that this is big on their bucket list. I can only offer one piece of advise to anyone who really wants to see the aurora, and this applies to all of nature's manifestations - never ever give up! When there is a chance of aurora keep going out, put in the hours, be dedicated and passionate, prepare to be in this for the long run, the results may not happen straight away and often you will be going home empty handed or at best seeing a weak glow. But keep at it because when that big display comes it will be worth it, exceptional displays can be life changing events and once you see a good one chances are high you will be hooked for life, this is exactly how I got into the aurora.

Short DSLR time lapse of the Ballintoy stacks aurora, I wish I had shot more frames so this is very short indeed, I spent much time walking over the rocks and changing composition taking still images and before long dawn began to appear so it seemed that time went in all too fast, I hope you still enjoy it regardless. Thanks very much for reading.


Martin McKenna

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