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Epic Aurora Display, Giants Causeway & Ballintoy Harbour - April 23rd

The title says it all, a truly epic night spent at the Co. Antrim coast of N. Ireland watching a jaw-dropping aurora display which was completely unexpected, sort of. The sun was quiet enough and not particularly alarming until it unleashed two coronal mass ejections (CMEs) which were expected to become geoeffective in conjunction with a solar wind stream so there was a triple whammy chance of aurora action, however I was far from excited. The reason was that the animated gifs showing the forecasted tracks of the CMEs and their expected effects on the inner planets were not encouraging and I was highly confident the first would miss Earth entirely however the second looked to be heading our way but the CME looked slow and weak and not something which would get my blood boiling, furthermore the geomagnetic forecasts were not expecting much either with the words 'unsettled' and 'active' conditions expected at high latitudes only however despite this negative take on the situation I was still sure there would be aurora displays but just not the kind to spend my petrol money on, these typically take the form of a faint glow along the horizon and are fairly common - always nice to see (I always watch them) but not enough to justify a trip to the coast.

It had been a busy period during this time with the most convectively active weather period across UK and Ireland for years so I was out storm chasing on and off for two weeks with limited results as well as being on full alert for aurora activity. During the weekend Roisin and I did alot of hiking up mountains covering alot of miles then on Saturday past we stayed up late to watch the Lyrid meteor shower from a dark country location where we even saw another aurora low on the horizon just as I had expected, however it never amounted to much and that was that. On Monday April 23rd there was still no indication of anything exciting however that evening when we came home I checked the internet then simply said to Roisin ''I think we are going to the coast tonight'', the situation had completely changed with mid northern latitudes on red alert along with a south tilting IMF and a rising KP trend, another check and it was obvious the geomagnetic forecasts had changed their tune and were now using the words 'minor' and even 'major' storming, it was obvious they had not been expecting this and upgraded the forecast as the CME effects manifested themselves.

The timing of this was absolute perfection, it was late evening and the Sun was low in a crystal clear sky and the forecast was extremely positive with clear skies on the agenda for much of the night so it seemed there was nothing to stand in our way. It may seem strange but on a regular basis I get really powerful instincts about sky action potential and can usually tell by the way my body changes its chemistry in the build up to a potentially thrilling event if it is worth pursuing or not, in this case that feeling was extremely potent, in fact, I had to lay face down on my bed for a while to calm down because I was getting heart palpitations and I could tell by that heightened state of readiness that my instincts knew something good was going to happen soon, Roisin confirmed this by saying she had a really good feeling as well and her instincts are always in tune with nature. At 21.15 we hit the road and began the drive N however the twilight glow really seemed to last forever as if the sky was teasing us because we couldn't wait for darkness to arrive, we were both tired and low on energy so we pulled into a filling station and had a hot brew and some food to re-energize while watching the beautiful dusk sky with planet venus and the crescent moon putting on a beautiful show in the darkening twilight then we where on our way again.

We pulled over in a lay by outside Portrush to check the sky, the stars where out but there was still some time left until darkness arrived so I busied myself taking images of the moon and venus over the calm sea as the stars came out one by one. After 23.00 the sky was almost dark so we advanced on at a swift pace along the coastal roads, I simply couldn't wait to get to our destination, my mind was already there watching an aurora however the car seemed to be a heavy weight stopping me from floating away to that scene in my mind, all I could see was that red flashing light at mid latitudes on the Solar Terrestrial Despatch website, I had only ever seen our latitude going red once in many years and I was clouded out that night so this was playing with my head big time, I just hoped the activity would last until I got a few images, this was my 22nd 'chase' to the coast this year already so I was hoping that this time I would get rewarded with something nice. We arrived at the famous Giant's Causeway just as darkness fell and before our eyes adjusted to the dark we could already tell that the sky was suspicious through the car windscreen as it had that typical enhanced look like a twilight glow which shouldn't have been there, Roisin could even see purple colours before I had the camera set-up. We got sorted out with a torch and I took a quick test image to the N and bingo, the camera confirmed the presence of an obvious aurora with green and purple colours on the image during a short exposure so it was game on.

Aurora Display, Giants Causeway & Ballintoy Harbour

I knew exactly what I wanted, we had previously made a number of daylight visits and several night trips to this location when I talked about how amazing it would be to get a major aurora display over those legendary 60 million year volcanic rock formations, I had already visualized it in my mind and knew exactly where we needed to be to get the perfect angle. The idea was good but in practice it was not so simple for it involved navigating by foot across a boulder field in complete darkness with nothing but a single torch between the both of us which was only good for revealing the ground beneath one of us at a time, the rocks were also challenging in their own rite as they were not level with tops shaped like irregular hexagons with some domed tops and concave pits, some of which were filled with water, combine this with the countless variation in height and you had an experience in its own rite just getting across to the spot near the sea. We finally got there as the aurora seemed to switch on and I said to Roisin that I had a feeling it was going to go into outburst at any moment, we reached a shallow cliff of hexagon rocks, Roisin stayed on top with the torch and I slowly worked my way down the rocks into a pool of darkness level with the ocean. I stepped into water and my boots and jeans got soaked and I slipped at intervals as I tried to get comfortable. I set up the tripod legs on three rocks of different height which required alot of tripod adjusting and a little vernacular on my part to get level then I was ready. Then it was as if nature had been waiting and fired it's celestial starter's pistol and the aurora went into outburst!.

A formation of 40 degree high beams shot skyward and multiplied along a horizontal plane as they gracefully drifted across the auroral arc so I just kept taking exposures while Roisin used the torch to illuminate the rock formations and it worked like a charm, this is one of those images and I can tell you alot of good fortune was involved in this because the torch we were using was multifunctional with white beams, blue lights and red warning lights, the white light was what I needed but it suddenly malfunctioned so this is the only image which turned out perfect as the others had blue and red colours which didn't look rite, thank goodness it worked when it did though. Roisin could see subtle purple and red colours visually and I could see vibrant greens and subtle reds as the aurora continued and if anything its performance was getting better by the minute.

Aurora Display, Giant's Causeway & Ballintoy Harbour

Same scene just when the bright torch beam stopped working so we resorted to using the blue light which was much more soft and diffuse in nature, the distant rocks remained in shadow however the foreground rocks were bathed in blue light which produced a very nice effect. The vertical rays sported lovely purple and pink colours, you can even see the purple reflecting on the sea.

Aurora Display, Giants Causeway & Ballintoy Harbour

With sore ankles we climbed onto the highest point on the rocks which gave us a wonderful view across the ocean horizon as the aurora began to really show off. We where frozen to the spot by two perfect beams pointing high into the sky with incredible definition like two search light beams among the stars, the above image shows the E beam which can be seen piercing through the Double Cluster between Perseus and Cassiopeia. I fancied changing location and getting a new foreground as I was starting to feel obstructed by the rock formations here so we made our way back across the boulders and into the car and drove further around the coast, Roisin was adamant about Ballintoy Harbour so that became our new location.

Aurora Display, Giants Causeway & Ballintoy Harbour

As we drove down the dark twisting road which led to the harbour I knew we had made the correct decision as the aurora simply looked stunning, we could see it through the windscreen glowing in the sky as we descended the steep gradient, we pulled over half way down at a bend and got out for more images. Another car parked beside us and the owner came over, it was Brian Fullerton whom I had met before during a previous nocturnal shoot here and we all began chatting while watching the sky. The aurora suddenly intensified remarkably at this point around magnetic midnight with a very bright auroral arc with tall vertical beams which projected at an angle towards the stars with a crazy network of short rays within and below the primary arc which were so bright we could see them moving and slicing through the black murk/haze above the ocean horizon like a knife cutting through butter, it was amazing to watch while each of us commented out loud about something else we had spotted, beams here, a huge searchlight there, the colours, reflections etc, it was changing by the second and there was so much to take in, at this point it was already better than any aurora I had seen since 2005 so I was on a high and savouring every moment.

Aurora Display, Giants Causeway & Ballintoy Harbour

Same location with the camera panned around to take in the E section of the display with brilliant planet venus with the amazing aurora accompanied by beams sprouting up everywhere, this was pure eye candy and Brian's first aurora display, and what a first display it was too.

Aurora Display, Giants Causeway & Ballintoy Harbour

I fancied new foreground and Brian suggested a new location on high ground so we followed him. This turned out to be one of my favourite memories from the night, we where on very high ground in pitch black conditions standing beside a wall looking across all of Ballintoy Harbour and to the Atlantic Ocean beyond. From this point onwards it seemed the aurora had become a living breathing entity which stretched across the entire canvas of sky and stars from NE to NW as a brilliant green band with countless green rays of individual character performing their own dance. In places the aurora was so bright the stars where washed out from the sky, for me the most striking colour was the neon green with a hint of red hue above the band however Roisin could easily see the purple/blue colours which was impressive!.

Aurora Borealis, Giants Causeway & Ballintoy Harbour

Panning the camera around to the W section of the aurora where the most spectacular performance of vertical rays where starting again, it looked like it was going into yet another outburst, the greatest concentration of beams where within the R and centre of the band however soon the attention would shift to the L side then repeat in glorious cycles all across the arc. The green reflecting on the sea and on the harbour inlet could easily be seen with the naked eye, the red light to the R belongs to Rathlin Island light house.

Aurora Borealis, Giants Causeway & Ballintoy Harbour

These are my absolute favourite images from the session with the stunning multicoloured rays/beams sporting green, red, and purple colours with the cottage below and planet venus complete with N and S pointing pillars and glitter path on the ocean, this was heaven for me. The conversation was excited and at times there would be quiet intervals when all three of us just took in the show and silently absorbed the moment.

Aurora Borealis, Giants Causeway & Ballintoy Harbour

Pretty much aurora insanity at this point, I have included a few similar images of this scene since I loved it so much with various structure/colour variations between all the images.

Aurora Display, Giants Causeway & Ballintoy Harbour

Then it intensified and on the verge of another major outburst, I read some reports of others seeing one outburst but it seemed to us there where outbursts going on all the time in cyclic fashion. The weather was perfect, absolutely calm, cool and silent except for the distant rumbling sound from the sea playing with the rocks on the shore, it was wonderful not having freezing temps, blowing gales or hail, this was a pure pleasure and mother nature was showing off big time. I think the dark streaks of cloud really add a nice structure element to the sky and give a more pronounced effect of depth and contrast, clear skies are excellent however some cloud can really enhance an image dramatically.

Aurora Display, Giants Causeway & Ballintoy Harbour

Major outburst now, we didn't know where to look as there was so much going on at once, there seemed to be beams everywhere shooting up like torch lights along the entire length of the arc varying from fine rays with sharp edges to huge broad rays with diffuse tops, some of the taller beams exceeded 60 degrees or more in height as they shot through Cepheus high into the circumpolar sky less than half way to the zenith.

Aurora Display, Giants Causeway & Ballintoy Harbour

We went down to lower ground, I just couldn't resist shooting the cottage with the aurora above and by good fortune an outburst of rays with purple colours joined the scene for good measure, the aurora was going crazy at this stage and seemed to be getting even better than it was before, the next outburst however really goes beyond my descriptive capabilities. These were all taken with my new Canon 18-55mm MKII kit lens which I just got on Saturday morning which was fantastic timing, I broke my last one while storm chasing, I set my camera on the car roof and drove off without thinking and the camera fell onto the road on a busy carriageway, the camera was fine however the lens was too tight when zooming in and out and the auto focus no longer worked so I had to order a new one for £76.00 which was a costly mistake but thankfully I got it replaced and ever since it's been a good omen for me because 'first light' was the aurora on Saturday followed on the next night with this spectacle.

Aurora Borealis, Giants Causeway, Ballintoy Harbour

This was the most memorable moment of the night for all three of us, the above image may not look like much structure-wise compared to the others however visually it was showing us the most incredible auroral movements I have seen for many many years, at first I never even noticed what was going on because I was concentrating on taking images until Brian then Roisin alerted me to a strange phenomena going on within the green area to the centre and LHS of this image looking due N. What can only be described as a pulsating/flickering/flaming form visible as a green patch of light that seemed to vibrate or swell in size and brightness, this form was visible as a single patch but at times it had a twin, Roisin likened the form to the beating heart of the aurora which is a description I absolutely love. The flaming green form would then rise vertically upward at tremendous speed lasting for only one second or so in duration like a green supercharged elevator of light, I'm sorry I just cannot find words that will do it justice and because the movement was so swift it just showed up on the images as a smooth form during the exposure, whatever the reason for it this beating heart of the aurora was one of the coolest phenomena I have seen in years, we felt honored to have been watching as if it was a gift from nature herself, it certainly was an experience I shall not forget.

Aurora Display, Giants Causeway & Ballintoy Harbour

Brian kindly took this personal image showing Roisin and I enjoying the moment so thanks Brian for your help!. The crazy flaming heart was still going on here and if you look at the area of sky where we are starring you can see it in the form of green enhancements under the main band where the red colour begins, we just stood there awestruck watching and pretty much feeling inadequate to explain the phenomena, it's at times like these that you can understand how ancient sky watchers must have felt when a dramatic aurora with alien forms presented itself, I'm sure they thought it was the end of the world. The highlight was another huge green vertical pillar of light which could be seen reflecting on the ocean compelete with its own glitter path pointing directly at us, after seeing that I don't think I could go back to inland aurora watching again.

It was the early hours and Roisin had to be at work in the morning so we called it a night and began the drive home but even as we drove along the country roads and despite my dark adaption being hindered by the full beam headlights I could still see the aurora with complete ease, at one stage when near Dunluce Castle I just stopped the car in the middle of the road for a few seconds (the roads were empty at this time of night) and switched off the lights, we glanced through the driver's window and saw the aurora going into an extreme outburst, it was even better than we had seen it before with broad beams and curtains moving laterally across the sea of huge vertical extent with striking green colour, it looked sublime but we couldn't stay any longer so I drove on, that last peak from a pitch black coastal road at night is a memory I shall always cherish. I had to push the thought of the aurora from my mind otherwise I would have crashed in the ditch, we got home at 02.30 and the aurora was still going strong, I eventually got some sleep that night despite seeing that green aurora in my mind all night long and by the next day, and the day after that, I was still on a high, I felt like my body and mind was still at Ballintoy Harbour watching the show even though I was back at home, I love experiences like this and I love auroras, April 23rd/24th 2012 was the perfect night and as I finish typing this I know I will be going back to sleep with that aurora still playing in my mind. Thanks very much for reading.


Martin McKenna

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