On February 25th 2014 a violent X4.9-class solar flare erupted from a large sunspot group which had just rotated into view around the SE limb of the solar disk. The CME it unfurled was a massive full halo feature in the form of an expanding cloud of highly charged particles and plasma en route to the inner planets at a staggering velocity of over 2000km/sec. At this speed the CME would sweep across 93 million miles of space and impact planet Earth in only two days. However there was bad news as the source of this flare - and subsequent CME event - was located so close to the limb of the sun that the CME was very unlikely to impact Earth because it was located too far from the meridian and hence was not termed geoeffective which meant there was no chance of any Earth directed component at all. A few hours later a more detailed look by spaceweather scientists followed which offered some cautious optimism for in some of their forecasting models there was a slight chance that the CME could hit Earth a glancing blow with a possibility of minor geomagnetic storms on Feb 27th however the consensus was that the CME would probably miss entirely or if there was a hit then it wasn't expected to be significant. When I updated this website on the eve of the 27th I did say that the event bared close watching and that surprises could be in store - if only I knew how significant those words would become on the hours ahead.
There was also a slight chance of thunderstorms, it was still very early in the season however the increasing height of the sun with a slightly increased chance of solar heating in conjunction with 200 CAPE and LIs of -1 meant there was a chance of seeing convection with hail showers and a chance of thunder. Any decent convection was more likely to happen along coastal areas where the battle ground between different amounts of moisture and heat with local convergence could help generate forcing and perhaps induce a cell to spark. My plan was to get up early on the morning of the 27th and drive straight to the coast and make a day of it. Once morning came I was up early as planed however I wasn't convinced about the coast chase, the satellite image showed no decent cells and everything on radar looked weak to moderate and they didn't seem to intensify as the hours ticked by, I considered the storm chase to be a bust and in a way I was glad I didn't get suckered into it as I would have wasted fuel for nothing.
I glanced out my window to the NW and got a shock, in the distance over what seemed like inland coastal areas I could see a solid updraught tower which actually looked fairly decent and I thought to myself that it looked like it was forming into a storm. I checked online and was shocked to see fresh sferic strikes within min's, they where c-gs from that tower I had just seen and they struck near Derry and as the cell slowly moved E it produced more c-gs to the N near the ocean exactly where I had planned to go, I couldn't believe it, another look out the window and I could see that the tower had turned into a long anvil which was stretching across the sky from N to NE heading in the direction of Ballycastle. I should have listened to my instincts because if I had I would have been on location watching lightning, hearing thunder and getting images of that cell, however it was too late, I made the mistake of being hesitant and held back when I should have been more assertive.
I decided to go chasing anyway, I really just wanted an excuse to get out after something. There where more showers moving in from the ocean behind it so I just hoped that one of them would turn into a storm too so I quickly got the gear ready and began driving N however the journey took much longer than usual due to tractors and lorries holding up the road so it seemed to take forever and I quickly began to get agitated and frustrated and wished I had never left the house. Once I arrived at the Co. Antrim coast my attitude immediately changed, there were no more storms however the fresh sea air combined with the sun on my face and the sound of the ocean felt so peaceful and rejuvenating. Soon a distant line of convection fired and lined itself far out across the ocean horizon with towers and small anvils which actually looked quite beautiful in full white splendor against a crisp blue sky background with hail shafts dripping over the sea. They were not producing any sparks however I was grateful for something to shoot so I spent the next couple of hours taking images and video of the scene with the knowledge that I would probably never even show them online anyway, I just seen this as a practice session.
By late afternoon that line of convection began to decay and as it did so they gusted out sending a cool pool spreading across the ocean which acted like an invisible scoop lifting warm air upward until it reached its condensation level which in turn formed into cloud. The result was a long low level menacing cloud formation called a shelf cloud which formed on that cold boundary and began to sweep across the sea heading for land. I climbed up on top of the narrow high wall adjacent to Dunluce Castle and stood precariously on the slanted stones accompanied by a cold gusty wind and began taking images while trying to ignore the fact that I was close to the edge of a cliff and doing a very dangerous thing. Suddenly the sun broke out and lit the coastal landscape into bright warm colours, the cliffs and grass seemed to glow a magnificent orange-yellow while the sea took on a metallic green hue and all of these contrasted beautifully with the dark storm clouds moving in, then the gap closed and the sun was gone and so was my magic light. I thought at least I had something to show for this chase and considered these few images to be my highlight of the day, at least I wouldn't be going home empty handed.
Later in the day I was parked at Portballintrae watching a wonderful clear sky, the sun was bright and still at a decent elevation above the horizon considering the time of year and if it wasn't for the cold air outside the scene could have been mistaken for a warm Summer's evening. It was around this time that I began to get these strange episodic images flashing in my head, the images were of the aurora forecast I had posted on the site the previous night and as the min's ticked by the more I was thinking about the chances of aurora. Then an hour before sunset I began having very powerful instincts that something was happening and that there could be good aurora activity, I had no reason to feel this as the forecast was nothing exceptional however I just couldn't put these feelings to the side. The last time I felt like this was during the major aurora of April 2012 which was spectacular, on the hours leading up to that event I was feeling on the edge all day, my adrenaline and excitement were off the charts and I was getting anxiety symptoms to the extent that I had to lay down on my bed for 10 min's to calm myself down, it seemed as if my body and mind knew something that I wasn't consciously aware of. That aurora turned out to be the best I had seen since Halloween 2005 and produced my best aurora images to date so I have since learned to trust what my body was trying to tell me.
Now I was getting those very same emotions combined with an overwhelming urge to get home and check online. I didn't have any internet access at the coast so I had no idea what was going on however all seemed quiet when I had left earlier. I began to drive home from the coast as the sun sank towards the horizon in a stunning clear sky and all I could feel in my body was this feeling of rush, rush, rush!!!, get home now!!!!. My goodness something was brewing for sure, I could feel the atmosphere change and my instincts screaming at me so I drove home as fast as I legally could. Between Coleraine and Garvagh the long day of being out in the cold had hit me and with a combination of no food and refreshments I suddenly felt absolutely exhausted. My legs felt tired and heavy and my eyes felt the same and I knew I had to get home soon before I passed out. When I pulled up outside the house I felt like I was getting out from the car in slow motion and all I wanted was to lay down in the heat and rest with a nice mug of tea however before I could do that I summoned up the motivation to check online first.
First spaceweather.com with the breaking news that the CME had recently hit Earth and that auroras were possible on the hours ahead. I then checked facebook and saw that I had been tagged in a post by US storm chaser Mike Hollingshead. Mike is also a very passionate aurora photographer so the fact that he had alerted me to something was a major sign that something was cooking big time. His words got me excited as I could read between the lines and knew what he was hinting at, he addressed the fact that the timing was absolutely perfect for us and that the Bz had gone to minus 20. I quickly checked the aurora charts - holy s**t!!!, the Bz was indeed -20. As soon as I saw this all my exhaustion lifted in an instant!. I have been observing auroras for a very long time and during that period I have learned not to be wasting time on watching KP values, solar wind speed or oval position because all that meant nothing. The Bz is the secret to a good aurora show, this is were its at, the Bz (pronounced Bee Sub Zee) is a value indicating the tilt of the Interplanetary Magnetic Field or IMF. If the Bz is N then you can forget about a good show, even if the KP is good it won't make a difference, however if the Bz tilts S then the Earth and Sun's magnetic fields become aligned and in effect what you are doing is opening a gate way - a geomagnetic Ouija board if you like - allowing the highly charged solar particles to interact with the Earth's magnetosphere undisturbed - this open channel will manifest as a strong geomagnetic storm. The fact that it was - 20 got me extremely excited, this value meant the aurora was going to be strong and would be seen from far more southern latitudes than usual.
I instantly knew that this was going to be a big show and I couldn't believe my luck, it was all happening to perfection, there was a brewing solar storm rite now and it looked like it was going to be clear for the next hour or two at least and the sky was dark with no lunar interference, circumstances like this don't happen often. My next thought was where to go?, I couldn't believe I had come back from the coast, I should have stayed there for the show however the thought of driving all the way back there was discouraging so I decided I would shoot inland instead and try out something more local and different. First of all I rang Paul Martin's mobile to see what he was doing. Paul had seen the charts too and was literally in the process of throwing back his dinner and would be leaving in a few min's, his destination was the famous Beaghmore stone circles in Co. Tyrone and he would be meeting a photographer and journalist from the Ulster Herald called Jude Browne who wanted to do a piece on Paul for the newspaper. This had been in the pipeline for a while as Paul had been waiting for good clear night to make the meeting worthwhile and with clear skies forecast he made the call and the meeting was arranged for tonight and earlier he had informed Jude that there was a slight chance of an aurora too. I decided I would join them because Paul and I had been doing a lot of aurora hunting lately and it only seemed rite that we would be together when this storm happened so I said I would meet him there. Outside the sky was dark blue with a few of the bright stars visible, however there was no time for dinner, no time for flasks, and no time even to fill water. It would be getting dark soon and I still had a good bit of driving to do so feeling fueled up on a new surge of adrenaline I hit the road and began the drive south as rapidly as I could.
I was making good progress in the semi darkness and even though the evening twilight was bright it looked deeply suspicious to me and I suspected there was already an aurora there and with that thought my boot pressed down more heavily on the accelerator. I got held up on the long road outside Desertmartin by a driver doing 40mph on the main road, he didn't have L or R plates on and there seemed to be no reason to be going that slow however because of the curving roads, low light, busy incoming traffic and a forming frost all happening at once I couldn't take any risks so I had to stay behind him for miles which infuriated me, I'm normally not hot headed behind the wheel however this guy was pushing me too far, did he not know there was an aurora?, I was cursing him from inside the car and eventually I saw my chance and passed as we where leaving Moneymore. I raced up the carriageway into Cookstown and made a very quick stop at my Dad's home where I explained the situation and grabbed a very quick mug of tea which I pretty much threw down me then I was back on the road again, got held up in Cookstown traffic, then let out a breath of relief when I got on the main Omagh road, it would be plain sailing from here on, or so I thought until I ended up taking the wrong road and found myself in the middle of nowhere near a forest, I was seriously lost, it was dark and missing valuable sec's of the aurora and panic began to set in. I was so psyched up seeing this aurora that I wasn't thinking logically so I calmed myself down, focused my mind on logic and directions then backtracked miles through the road until I found a small village I recognized, from there I knew I had took the wrong road option and this time I saw the correct one. Beaghmore stone circles to the right, so I wasted no time and advanced in that direction encountering very narrow and dangerous twisting back roads into the mountains and at times I could see large white sections of frost which caused me to slow down, it was hairy going for a while but I finally made it to the car park just as full darkness arrived.
As soon as I stepped outside the car I got a shock, even though my night vision had been dazzled by the bright headlight beams I could see an aurora. A large well formed bright green arc was on show curving gracefully over the Sperrins, through the tree branches in front of me, and merging with the vast open landscape to the right of the car park and as I watched vertical beams began to form in front of me like green strokes through the arc by some invisible painter, it was happening!. I wasted valuable sec's getting the camera mounted on the tripod due to the excitement, normally this act was a swift smooth motion but now due to the adrenaline the mount never seemed to connect home, it kept slipping and once it did mate with the mount I realised all my camera settings were still in storm chasing mode so I had to waste more time adjusting WB, going to bulb mode, selecting ISO, lock the mirror, go to manual focus, attach cable release then set live view, get focused, level then ready to go, this entire process seemed to take too long, it was like torture and I wondered when I would be free from this nonsense and getting to take images.
I then carefully walked into the huge area that is Beaghmore stone circles. This place was pitch black and even though I had a head torch on I had to move with great caution because beyond the short beam range of the light was utter darkness and ancient rock formations everywhere. The sky was utterly incredible, by far the best I had seen this year and sparkling with countless stars with Orion glowing with great pride behind me near a single tree on the hill. I glimpsed two figures in the darkness with lights and walked over, it was Paul and Jude already set-up, Jude had a special light mounted on the ground to illuminate the stones then the first images of the night were taken. Just when I got in the zone and ready the sky lit up and the aurora went into a major outburst, Paul said the aurora had been waiting on me!. The first few sec's of looking at the sky were instant gratification, the green arc had swollen into a massive sweeping form and tall rays began to appear, at first in front of us, then two sections then seven areas of intense rays were shooting skyward, it looked like a silent invasion was taking place before us, the battlefield was the Ionosphere however it looked so much closer. The 18mm FOV was filled so I had to switch to the 10mm F/3.5 ultra wide angle to do it justice.
The colours were unreal, by this time we couldn't contain our excitement anymore and we began talking out loud, cheering, pointing with WOWs and even vernacular. Paul was pointing in front of us saying ''look''...and we saw amazing red beams piercing through the green arc, the colour was striking!, we could actually see the red easily with the naked eye then I would shout ''look to the N now!!'' and there would be a fresh outbreak of beams near Ursa Major with the most incredible orange colour I have seen in years. We couldn't believe Jude's luck, this was her first night photo shoot and first ever aurora, we had to inform her that this was very rare indeed, a unicorn in the geomagnetic zoo, we had been waiting years for a show like this and now it was happening rite here rite now, nobody had expected to witness a show like this tonight!.
Check out those colours!, I couldn't believe what I was seeing, with the naked eye I could see vivid red, orange and green colours all in unison with green rays with red tops extending over 80 degrees high (160 full moon diameters) almost to the zenith where I was checking periodically incase a corona formed. I was taking exposure after exposure non stop, there was no time to think of composition as I didn't want to miss a second of this or risk moving the camera during another exciting eruption of ray formation. The green arc looked like a broad rainbow covering the sky from W to NE and I couldn't fit it into the huge 10mm wide angle lens, in the above image I could have turned ninety degrees to the right and still get the aurora in the frame not to mention the subtle strange forms appearing out of frame to the left.
It was utterly magical to watch and photograph this incredible geomagnetic storm from such an ancient and mysterious place of such historical significance. Beaghmore stone circles is a Bronze Age Megalithic site which was occupied in Neolithic times. Flint tools have been dated back to 2900-2600BC so this place is seriously old, the site consists of seven stone circles of various sizes with Megalithic tombs, twelve cairns and ten stone rows. The circles are between 10 and 20m in diameter and were only recently discovered in the 1940s so this place is still a fresh discovery with many mysteries and questions unanswered. Beaghmore stone circles may have been a place of astronomical significance with alignments to the solstice however a large amount of evidence supports the theory that the place was used for burials and rituals as cremated Human bones have been found in some of the cairns including those of children. Standing at this ancient site surrounded by this kind of ancient history under a red and green sky is an experience I shall never forget.
Second outburst of the night, the Magnetosphere must have been hit a serious whack by the CME to induce such a long duration south tilting Bz like this, it seemed the show wouldn't stop with highly active concentrations of rays to the N, NW and W all going at once then they would fade and a new area would start all over again in one wonderful cycle of visual beauty. The aurora was so bright and the colours so vivid that I could actually see the red glow of the aurora reflecting on the frost which covered the grass around us, this was amazing, the frost was red!, if you look carefully in these images you can see the red glow on the grass, however it was much more obvious with the naked eye. I love this image with the burial cairn and the strong aurora storm ongoing in the Heavens above, this is the kind of experience which really enhances that connection with the Earth and sky, this is a communion with nature which I always hunt for and tonight I not only could see it but I could almost feel the energy. The bright orange colour is extremely rare to catch on camera and even more rare to see so clearly with the naked eye. Counting this night I have observed 118 auroras to date and the last time I saw orange colours like this was most certainly during the extreme geomagnetic storms of 2000, 2002 and 2003, that's 14 years ago!.
Any decent aurora will produce red colours on camera however to detect red this deep and to this extent with the naked eye requires a very strong geomagnetic storm. The last time I saw red this easily was 2005 and before that it was 2003. Aurora colours are generated by the interaction of solar wind particles colliding with different elements located at various heights in the atmosphere, red colours are generated at greater heights and are emitted by Oxygen. Check out the red on the grass in this image!
The green band sported two tiers during this entire period with green rays at low elevation and pink with red aloft. A purple ray can be seen above the tall stone however I never saw that colour visually but Paul said he did which was quite awesome.
It was absolutely freezing here, the grass was covered in a crisp frost and I spotted Paul's camera bag close by and it was coated in a sparking white blanket. My cable release began to malfunction and when I pressed the button the exposure wouldn't start so I changed to a back up cable and it did the same thing so I had to leave bulb mode and use the timer instead for a while before getting the cables to work again.
Turning the camera around 180 degrees to the left from where the previous images were taken. Non stop aurora action with pink, red, and green rays. Behind the upright stone in the darkness is a large stone circle made up with small perimeter stones and filled with more stones known as the Dragon's Teeth. The dew forming at this point was unreal, my camera and lens were soaking and when I checked my lens it was covered to the point where it was affecting my images, I cleaned it off with a cloth however it came down so heavy that it re-coated the lens after every single exposure.
I then ventured uphill into the darkness making my way through the crisp grass which made a crunching noise with each foot step as if I were walking through snow. I liked this isolated tree - the only one in the area - which looked down upon the stone circles like a guardian, in the distance you can see the lights from Paul and Jude near another circle. The aurora was spectacular in the form of stationary green and red patches with M31 embedded within the red glow of the middle form. The colour on the grass here was unreal with the red reflecting on the frost, this is the best example I have out of all the images taken confirming this as a shadow-casting aurora.
The sky was dominated by this large transparent veil with little in the way of structure, I looked up and wondered if mist or murk had moved in however it wasn't until I took this exposure that I found out that the veil was actually the aurora itself with murky crimson colours awash across the sky with a few orange rays appearing for good measure, the impression given is that of the glow from great flames over the horizon during an apocalyptic battle in the sky.
Jude on the left and Paul on the right. It looked like the sky was on fire and covered in a vast veil of crimson light, check out the two green auroral patches located far above the horizontal arc. Paul informed me that he could see the red aurora glowing on my face!. We had been watching this epic light show for hours then it seemed to ease down a little so Jude decided to call it a night, she had got everything she wanted and more, we were sure she would never forget this night in a hurry, perhaps she will become an aurora hunter herself.
Paul and I decided to change location, the aurora was still very obvious with activity going up and down like a yo-yo and although the haze was thickening and thin cloud beginning to move in we figured we had just enough time to get a few more shots before we were closed in for the night. We decided to hunt for reflections and to get those we needed a lake so we decided try Lough Fea outside Cookstown, we had been testing this location out on several nights last year and had it on our list of locations to try with an aurora and this night would be utter perfection because it was so still that the water had to be calm enough to show decent reflections, so we hit the road once more hoping that the aurora would hold itself together for one last shoot. While en route to the next location it felt like we were on a storm chase with our two cars moving at a very swift pace through the dark roads with sudden twists, hills, dips, and all of them were narrow and very hazardous looking with thick frost glittering in the headlights and once again the drive was a hairy adventure however with our minds on high alert and stimulated by the aurora our concentration and reactions were as sharp as a razor. While on the Omagh road facing N we could actually see the green auroral band arching across the lights of Cookstown in the distance, it was tempting to pull over for a rare shot of that however the thought of those reflections kept our minds focused so we continued on through Cookstown then along more dodgy frosty country roads in the countryside then we arrived at our destination.
As soon as the wheels stopped we exited both vehicles in an instant and began walking along the dark path flanking the lough until we found a good clearing in the trees looking across the lake, two of the tripod legs where in the water at this point. It was if the aurora was waiting on us yet again because as soon as we got the cameras on the tripods this fantastic crimson flame appeared in the sky along with numerous green rays and all of which could be seen reflecting on the water, this was amazing, beautiful, exciting, serenic and poetic all in one. This is 10mm again so you can appreciate how gigantic this feature was to full the frame and beyond as it did here.
We had made it just in time for those first few exposures for soon after the storm began to subside but even so there was a persistent green band glowing in the sky with several isolated rays topped by a fiery veil. This scene feels very African to me with the soft warm colours like a celestial heat wave, I was half expecting a Lion to roar. This truly was a beautiful night, the water was absolutely still with stars and aurora colours all visible reflecting on the surface. I switched on my head torch and shone it on the water and was blown away by an awesome scene - the entire lough was covered in white swirling lake steam/mist like a scene from Canada, what a wonderful visual treat to add to the sky above. The mist can't be seen on these images however I am pretty certain the mottled dark texture on the water is the same phenomena.
The Bz began to lift back N and as it did so the storm eased leaving us with a green and red glow on the horizon more typical of what an average weak aurora display would look like, however it still looked stunning reflecting on the water with the stars, in fact, the water was like a mirror. Upon closer inspection I could see the Milky Way reflecting on the surface too and Jupiter even had a glitter path. Paul began a star trail then we backed away from the cameras and just stood their in the silence admiring the silent beauty in the wake of that awesome aurora storm. By 00.30 we called it a night, the show was over and the adrenaline - which had kept us fueled for hours - had gone and suddenly hunger, thirst and tiredness took over, however despite this we walked back along the frosty path and icy puddles in very high spirits chatting animatedly about the aurora and what we thought of it. Any more driving would have been foolhardy for me so I spent the night at Dad's where I got to chill out and relax with a well earned mug of tea and a hot midnight snack. Sleep didn't come easy, how could it?, I was on a high from what I had experienced, I spent much of the night on the lap top chatting with other aurora photographers who had also been out and it seemed they were experiencing the same feelings that I was - pure exhilaration, there is something about seeing a fantastic aurora which leaves you buzzing, it's like a natural high or perhaps some emotional and spiritual awakening which opens your mind and body and connects you with the sky and your surroundings that's very difficult to describe, there's a peaceful rush from it that makes you glow and while watching the show I could almost feel the collective excitement from all the other photographers in the country who were experiencing the same feelings as I was.
I checked the charts when I got back, in conjunction with the Bz at -20 the KP was 6, the oval was red and the aurora was classified as a G2 geomagnetic storm. It took me some time to calm down from this event, I was actually buzzing for days after the aurora feeling full of energy even to the point that I couldn't sleep well as I was still on a natural high, in fact, I am writing these words a full week after that unforgettable night and still I am feeling the buzz as I relive every emotion through these words and images. Strong auroras can be very moving events and everyone has the rite to see a show like this for it really stirs up something extremely happy and positive inside which I can't fully explain, I am sure other observers feel the same way and could perhaps explain it better than I could. I just wished my partner Roisin and my Dad could have been here to have seen it however they couldn't do so because of other duties however I know there will be other times to make that experience happen.
So how did I rate this aurora?, without a doubt it was the best geomagnetic storm I have seen since April 2012, the 2012 event exhibited far more rapid motion including that astounding beating heart phenomena which was out of this world however what the Feb 2014 event lacked in motion it made up for with size and colour, as I mentioned before I have never seen such vivid orange colours since the 2000-2003 solar maximum severe storms so that certainly says a lot. This has also been the most vibrant aurora I have caught on camera since I got my first bridge camera so this was a new personal milestone as far as photography was concerned. However - and I need to say this for new and current aurora observers in this country - although this was an awesome spectacle it didn't even come close to the magnificent and violent geomagnetic storms of 2000, 2002 and 2003.
The auroras I observed during those years were so astonishing with the naked eye that I don't think any modern observer today would believe anything of that caliber could happen in this country or perhaps not even believe me. These auroras were on a stupendous level at the top of the scale covering the entire sky for 360 degrees while casting shadows on the ground with colours so varied and rich it was like viewing a CCD high colour aurora image from the Arctic Circle with the unaided eye. The motions were so swift and complex that they shocked the system and startled my logical thinking process so much that I almost felt as if the aurora was an intelligent breathing organism. I have records of these auroras in my log books and locked in my mind among my finest astronomical memories and I may describe them further in a future publication. In the meantime I hope you enjoyed the images and report and with the possibility of a later than expected solar maximum likely then perhaps we can all look forward to more spectacular auroras in the very near future. Thanks very much for reading.