On January 19th 2012 a large sunspot complex designated 1401 and 1402 moved close to the solar meridian while sporting a complex magnetic field which had the potential for solar flares and subsequent aurora potential, then it happened, sunspot group 1401 produced a long duration M-class solar flare which unfurled a large coronal mass ejection (CME) away from the sun and towards the outer solar system. Thanks to great fortune the location of the CME's parent sunspot group meant that this huge cloud of charged particles would impact Earth's magnetic field square on in the days ahead. The CME was moving through space at over 400km/sec and despite the Sun's vast distance of 93 million miles away the cloud would only take 2 or 3 days to reach Earth, the astronomical community was waiting with anticipation and so was I. NASA's spaceweather scientists produced an animated gif using data from the STEREO and SOHO spacecrafts which indicated that the CME would arrive on January 21st 2012 at 22.30UT with an accuracy of + or - 7 hours with the possibility of further activity the following night on January 22nd, the geomagnetic forecast was for minor storm conditions with a chance of isolated major storms, those words had my complete and undivided attention.
The weather forecast looked dodgy for the first night, there would be scattered showers with gale force winds between 50mph and 60mph however a brief window of clearance was expected during the afternoon and early evening before the arrival of another frontal system later in the night bringing more cloud and rain. The following night looked much better with regular showers but with a greater chance of clear spells so it would be a case of monitoring the aurora potential and weather very closely and making a move when opportunity knocked. My plan was to aurora 'chase' on both nights and never give up until I caught the aurora. On Saturday January 21st my girlfriend Roisin and I got organised, had breakfast in a local cafe, then had one last look at the forecast before we left. The latest geomagnetic forecast now favoured the following night of January 22nd to be the main CME arrival time however I never take such forecasts to literally as nature is just too unpredictable so we stuck to our plan of hunting on both nights. We hit the road and drove to the north coast with the intention of enjoying a day in that wonderful location while at the same time getting ourselves in position for the aurora as soon as it got dark.
The Co. Antrim coastline was beautiful and despite the roaring wind and cold temps the sea looked amazing in an entire state of chaos with the a bright sky overhead and the Sun shinning directly onto the water which illuminated a multitude of 'white horses' accompanied by fast moving rolling breakers, it was wonderful. The car park at Portballintrae was interesting for a while with powerful gusts of wind blowing curtains of sand off the beach and across the concrete which looked like a blizzard, opening the car door resulted in an instant sand attack, it was in our eyes, mouth, ears etc and not a great environment for a camera so we drove on around the coast where we enjoyed an incredible walk near Ballintoy which looked like the lost world, we navigated around ancient rock formations, crossed fast flowing streams and took shelter in caves as the wind gusted hard across the high ground, we could see huge lumps of foam flying through the air 50ft or more above our heads like some insane insect invasion. The crashing waves were stunning, these were not notable for their size but remarkable because of their rapid speed, I took this video clip which shows the scene quite well.
After an entire afternoon of walking across the rugged coastline we decided to go for dinner at a local restaurant near the Giant's Causeway just as the sun set over the ocean with a beautiful array of orange crepuscular rays fanning in all directions behind the Antrim hills. We enjoyed a nice steak dinner while outside brilliant planet Venus shinned through the window against a backdrop of blue dusk sky which was beautiful. After dinner we spent some time in the hotel lobby checking the internet using Roisin's phone, the aurora charts showed high latitudes on amber alert however nothing at mid latitudes yet, this was not discouraging because just hours before there was no activity at all so at least something subtle was happening, perhaps the first outer region of the solar wind stream ahead of the CME, the Bz was north which was not good but that could change anytime. Outside it had rapidly turned dark and cold with a terrible wind which made being outside a totally miserable experience, the sky conditions had went down hill badly.
We relocated to a dark location, parked up, and waited and waited. I was swapping text messages with photographer and aurora chaser Reed Ingram Weir who was also waiting for the aurora in Newcastle. It rained and sleeted heavily on us for what seemed like an eternity while the car shook in the unrelenting wind. A brief clearance yawned open in the clouds allowing me a perfect view due N and it was in that clearance where I instantly saw a very faint aurora display in the form of an enhancement to the sky in the N to NW sector which shouldn't have been there, I could see it with direct vision and even better with averted vision some 35 degrees high, it lacked colour due to its faintness and looked more like a grey twilight which must have been the uppermost regions of the auroral oval further N at that time. I got an image on camera then waited for more but nothing happened and the weather got worse so we had to call it a night and drive back home. Not long after I arrived Reed updated his facebook page showing an image of the aurora I had seen which completely confirmed my visual observation which felt great, at least I had seen a faint aurora, however that wasn't enough, I needed a decent display and had no choice but to wait until the following night.
Sunday January 22nd. I got up and checked the latest spaceweather data, as it turned out the CME hit at 06.00UT that morning and the impact was sufficient enough to generate auroras at both high latitudes and mid northern latitudes and further more the activity stayed strong all day long which meant that the aurora was visible all over N. Ireland since 06.00 and all through the day but there wasn't a single thing I could do about it as I had to wait for darkness to fall in order to see it, there would be another five hours to go until night fall but would the aurora activity hold out for that length of time?. I felt anxious and apprehensive, I knew this could be my last chance for a while so I felt extremely focused and the weather forecast was very encouraging to say the least so all was good. During daylight Roisin and I visited her parents and Sister while I periodically checked their computer for the latest intel, there was still aurora over N. Ireland however the satellite images showed an abundance of high and mid level cloud moving in from the NW which was not forecast, I looked outside and the clear sky had turned thick with cloud and I felt frustration taking over, things didn't look so good anymore.
As darkness fell I was no longer in a rush, we both felt cold and tired from the previous night's chase and spirits were low as we drove under cloud and rain. We killed some time by having dinner in Magherafelt then drove back to my home to relax for a while. We where only in the door ten min's when our plans for relaxation went out the window. The latest infra-red satellite images showed a cluster of clear gaps moving down from the NW from the Atlantic Ocean and they looked to be moving over the N coast and further inland, I checked outside and could see Vega flickering away low in the NW which indicated improving conditions so we wasted no time and went into combat mode. Within min's we where on the road advancing N at a rapid pace, my instincts told me we would see the aurora so I trusted them and committed myself to the drive for the second night in a row. As we drove through Garvagh then Coleraine under an orange cloud-covered sky I began to second guess myself however all that changed once we drove through the lights of Portrush and entered the pitch black roads along the cliff near the Atlantic Ocean and within sec's I spotted the aurora through the car window!.
I pulled off the road in a hurry and stopped in a lay by between Portrush and Dunluce Castle to check out the sky. I got out and shouted yessss!!!!!, aurora!!!!!, Roisin hurried out from the car too and saw it in an instant, this was her very first aurora display, she told me months ago how she had always wanted to see it and I said that if she stayed with me then she would, and here it was, I had done my part. The above two images show the aurora over the Atlantic Ocean framed by passing orange clouds with dark convective shower clouds in the distance above the horizon. Bright star Vega can be seen embedded within the auroral band with Cygnus and Milky Way above while the trail of a satellite tracked through Draco. The aurora looked vivid green in colour and extended beyond this 18mm FOV to the L and R of frame, visually I could see it stretching across a wide expense of sky from the NW to W of N and fully 30 degrees (60 apparent full moon diameters) high.
I felt ecstatic and elated to have seen it, even though I had experienced countless auroras in the past (90 displays) each and every one of them was different and they all made me feel thrilled and excited. I busied myself getting images just in case the sky clouded over again so Roisin and I took a quick memory shot to record the moment which felt very special. Feeling on a high but still mindful that time was not on our side as the sky would not stay clear for long we moved on further around the coast into darker territory while outside the window the entire time was the aurora glowing in the sky. We made it to our target area at Ballintoy Harbour.
I needed interesting foreground so I knew Ballintoy Harbour would deliver everything in abundance. As soon as the car stopped we where out watching and taking images. The aurora was waxing and waning in intensity, at times the display faded then brightened again at unpredictable intervals exhibiting classic aurora behavior. The green auroral band can be seen directly over the Jurassic-age rocks with Roark's Kitchen cottage making for a wonderful foreground object, I've always wanted to catch the aurora over this cottage and now I had succeeded. The more subtle red/purple/pink colours above the green were picked up by the camera but invisible to the naked eye simply because that portion of the aurora was too faint to stimulate the colour receptors in our eyes. You can see both the green and red colours reflecting on the sea below.
Another of the cottage and aurora with more menacing dark clouds threatening the tranquility of the moment however photographically speaking I think they add further dimension to the images. You can see the shadows of Roisin and I cast along the gravel by a single light behind us.
Another memory shot for the collection, here's Roisin and I enjoying the aurora with the red glow from a light house sweeping the heavens in the distance behind us.
This is my favourite image from the night, we waited in the car for showers of rain and sleet to pass then once the stars winked at us from behind the clouds we where back out again for another session. This time we navigated our way down the steep rocks along the shore which was dangerous going in the dark then made our way down to the small beach near the sea. This was wonderful, standing on a pitch black beach at night with not a person in sight, the sky was pitch black all around us with mighty Jupiter proudly shinning from the ecliptic while the glorious Milky Way arched down through the NW sky towards the ocean horizon and above which was the beautiful green aurora reflecting it's heavenly colours onto the sea below. This is what life is all about, to experience moments like this and with Roisin beside me was my idea of perfection, it was like living a dream where time didn't exist, it was simply living for the moment and absorbing the wonders of nature. I couldn't resist getting this image of us standing in the frame in each other's arms enjoying the show. This image means alot to me.
I took a few more after this, and being somewhat ignorant of the tide, at intervals there would be a gentle rumble when a wave would come further in than all the rest forcing us to run backwards up the beach, on several occasions my camera was in the middle of an exposure so I just left it to it while the waves engulfed the entire tripod to the extent where I could see my camera sticking up out of the sea doing its thing, that made me nervous to watch but I knew it would be ok, at least I had broke in my new tripod which I got for Christmas, it ended up covered in sand, foam, and salt.
The clouds where racing in fast from the sea so photography was limited, I had to take one more of the cottage before I went with green and purple aurora above. Vega can be seen to the R of the cottage peeking out from behind the clouds. I was busy taking images when a black bank of clouds appeared from nowhere and covered the sky then after a few min's a break opened 20 degrees wide and inside that window I saw a strong outburst of intense green rays (vertical pillars of light) moving over the roof of the cottage, I said ''holy s**t'' out loud and ran over to set up my camera but by the time I pressed the remote shutter that window had closed again.
We needed a signal as internet coverage was poor from this remote location so we took advantage of more rain to relocate to higher ground where reception was better. We pulled into a small lay by at the edge of a cliff overlooking White Park Bay Beach and waited for the clouds to part, Roisin got a signal and checked the charts, mid latitudes where still on amber alert with red at high latitudes, I got caught up with a few text messages and was delighted to see that Reed Ingram Weir, John C. McConnell, and Paul Martin had also observed and imaged the aurora from their own locations, and like us they where battling with the clouds. While sitting in the car I turned off the headlights and was shocked to see the aurora shining through the clouds which was a sight I hadn't seen for many years. A good clearance arrived and I went back out to take some final images, here's me enjoying an isolated moment to relax and soak up the entire experience. A faint ray waxed and waned within the centre of the band and a nice meteor zipped across the stars which made for a nice farewell from nature. It clouded over for a lengthy period after this so we drove home, we had been watching the aurora on and off from 20.13 UT until midnight so we got regular glimpses for a duration for almost 4 hours.
The next day at breakfast it had all seemed so surreal, where we really at the coast last night watching the aurora over the ocean?, it hardly seemed real at all and too far-fetched when eating a normal cereal back in normal routine but that's the effect a special night sky event leaves on us. The thrill was all to fleeting and we found ourselves wanting to see another aurora despite our exhaustion. The days after this were crazy, this aurora event triggered a phenomenal amount of media and public interest in the phenomena. The northern lights where on the T.V, radio, and in the newspapers, I lost count of the amount of phone interviews I did and emails I replied to just 24 hours after the display which was fantastic to be a part of. I heard that B&Bs in Co. Donegal had been inundated with bookings from the public hoping to see the northern lights!. For those who missed this one there's no need to fret, the Sun waxes and wanes in activity during its 11 year solar cycle, weak activity happens at solar minimum and more vigorous activity at solar maximum. The next solar maximum will be in 2013 so between now and then the Sun will be getting more active and violent with a greater number of sunspots, flares, CMEs, and hence a much greater chance of seeing the aurora from Ireland and UK and that time might come sooner than you think, thanks very much for reading.