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Christmas Eve Aurora & Engagement - Dec 24th 2014

The feeling was mutual, Roisin and I wanted to get engaged and after four wonderful years together we decided that we were going to make it happen, however we also both agreed that it wouldn't be a normal engagement proposal. Roisin gave me no hint on how I would propose to her except that I was to do it in my own way and seconds after she said these words I felt my heart quicken as I felt a combination of both nerves and excitement in equal measure. Roisin had always wanted to get engaged around Christmas time and more specifically on Christmas Eve since it's such a magical and romantic time of year, I loved her thinking regarding the date for I have always been an avid Christmas fan and smiled with delight at the thought of announcing the surprise news to our families on Christmas Eve which would make the festive period even more special for us all so I was thrilled by Roisin's wishes.

Roisin had choose the 'when' but the 'how' was up to me and I knew that it had to be something special and from the heart for simply proposing in a restaurant after a nice dinner was not going to cut it for the both of us. It took me a few seconds to make a decision and I knew there was no point on spending any more time pondering the issue for I had already decided in my heart what I wanted to do - I would propose in front of the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) - the very thought of it got me buzzing and I knew it was the perfect way to propose to Roisin for we both love nature and over the past four years we had spent countless hours together driving hundreds of miles below the border chasing thunderstorms during Summer days and hunting NLCs on those same balmy nights then when the seasons advanced we enjoyed observing comets and close planet conjunctions however most of all we never forgot the thrill of seeing the aurora, this was something very special and what better way to celebrate an engagement than with nature celebrating with us together, one way or another I decided that the night sky would be involved in my proposal so it was just a matter of waiting.

I had an entire year to plan my proposal however I'm also no fool and knew that the odds were stacked against me because the chances of getting an aurora around the Christmas period is very low in comparison to the prime aurora seasons during Spring and Autumn, in fact, my log books showed that during the 19 years I have spent observing I have witnessed 124 aurora displays and on only one occasion had I detected a naked eye aurora on Christmas Eve during that entire period. Furthermore I needed a dark moonless sky so the aurora would stand out with greater brilliance and I also needed a clear night which is very difficult to get in this country. I'm not a betting person however if I had wanted to make some money I would have betted against my chances of success given that the odds were stacked against me, however that being said I felt like I could tip the scales in my favour for I knew the subject well with 19 years of experience under my belt combined with a tenacious attitude which would never let me give up so my mental approach made a good bedrock. I'm also very passionate about the sky and have devoted a large part of my life to watching and photographing its wonders and I feel that I have gained a deep connection with the universe, so on some intangible spiritual level I felt that the sky knew what I was planning and when the time came it would not let me down.

2014 turned out to be one of the worst years for aurora activity in N. Ireland. With the exception of the stunning G2 geomagnetic storm in February and a few minor events here and there the year was a dude for any exceptional space weather. There were good aurora displays however these hit during daylight hours and the few which did hit after night fall where covered by cloud, in fact, this was one of the most overcast years I can remember and because of it I not only missed aurora activity but also NLC displays and meteor showers. By Halloween things were not looking good, the sun was quiet and any visible sunspots had simple magnetic fields unable to unleash flares. By November there was an increase in sunspot frequency when several CMEs were unfurled from new active regions however most of these plasma clouds went N or S of the Earth and the few forecasted glancing blow events missed us completely. By the start of December it looked like I wasn't going to be able to propose in front of any aurora and I began to feel a great sense of anxiety and a rushed sensation saying 'make it happen now'.

Suddenly during December 21st/22nd a CME impacted the Earth causing a decent geomagnetic storm event and everyone was ready for it, the forecast delivered however the weather forecast wanted no part in it and it looked it my chances were gone. The moment had passed and the geomagnetic forecast mentioned no further aurora activity during the run up to Christmas and with that came the realisation that I wasn't going to get my aurora proposal dream anymore. I had to do the next best thing so I decided that I would propose to Roisin under the stars at the Antrim coast and get a few images of the moment to have as cherished memories. On December 23rd the sky was cloudy however the forecast had turned extremely optimistic with clear spells forecast that night so I decided that tonight would be the night I proposed. We collected the Princess cut engagement ring during daylight hours then met my Dad who took us out to dinner to celebrate (thanks Dad!) then spent an hour or two in Dad's house wrapping last minute Christmas presents with Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra singing festive songs through the surround sound, the atmosphere was lovely and peaceful. I rested for half an hour in the dark and mentally prepared myself for the proposal and photo shoot to come during the hours ahead and inside my mind I asked the universe to help me out.

With everything done we drove back to my home in Maghera and relaxed with a well deserved brew and hot chocolate. I switched on my lap top to check the satellite imagery and sure enough it showed a plethora of clear spells between showers over the ocean so things were looking up. Then more out of habit than anything else I clicked on the aurora oval and got an instant shock - out loud I said ''holy sh**!!!'' - there was a geomagnetic storm in progress!!!!!!, I honestly couldn't believe what I was seeing, the auroral oval was bright and large with green and yellow colours then a few min's later when I refreshed the page it had strong red elements which I had not seen since the big storm earlier in the year, the KP was at 5 and the Bz tilted negatively at -13, these were all great signs that a bright aurora was happening rite now. Where had all this come from?, this aurora wasn't forecast, I mean it simply wasn't forecast at all!!!, in the excitement my logical brain knew what had happened, the CME which had struck two days before had disturbed the magnetosphere enough to induce this sudden activity, this was the field rebounding back after the impact, the conditions were utter perfection and the sky was dark and moonless. This was the chance we had been waiting for, nature had come through at the very last moment, I felt complete disbelief, shock and amazement then the realisation that we should not waste another second looking at the laptop screen, we had waited a year for this moment, nature was doing its part so now we needed to act to do ours.

We changed into warm clothes as quickly as we could and made our way rapidly north in the Berlingo towards the unknown while Christmas songs kept us company on the radio. The skies were clear from Maghera to Garvagh however once near Coleraine we where driving through showers and under cloud cover, there was a tense silence for a while as we secretly wondered if we would miss the aurora yet again due to cloud however none of us dared suggest such a thing out loud, we remained positive, we had faith in the sky, faith in the forecast and faith in ourselves. We arrived at the Antrim coast and headed in the direction of the Giant's Causeway, this is where we both agreed I would propose since it's such a prolific location and world heritage site and a place which has been good to us in the past for night sky action so we where meant to be there. We parked up and got out under the sky, it was completely overcast and pitch black and before we got fully dark adapted we could see the aurora glowing through the clouds, there was a low horizontal clear strip to the N which had a vibrant milky green colour, the aurora was there so all we needed to do was get to our location on the rocks and wait for the sky to clear.

Navigating by dark over the rocks at the Giant's Causeway can be a dangerous adventure, when these rocks are covered by rain or sea water they are can be treacherous so we had to slowly make our way hand in hand across the large network of hexagon-shaped black basalt rocks with head torches while the weather lashed us and after some time of careful wandering we stopped on one of the higher peaks adjacent to the sea. The sea was greatly agitated in a white froth banging and rumbling against the rocks with big swells putting on a show. We waited and waited for a clear gap and it never came, it was bitterly cold with a nasty wind chill which penetrated through every layer of clothing and which could be felt passing through our bodies chilling us to the core. The sky darkened further then we got hit by showers racing towards us from ocean to land, I felt big white lumps whack my face in the dark and for a moment I thought it was snowing so I turned on my torch and saw that it was actually large lumps of sea foam flying through the air horizontally, the foam hit us and the camera while we stood entirely exposed to the elements, we felt nature's onslaught with no mercy, Roisin and I were cold and wet and with no hint of clear sky in store we slowly made our way back over the rocks towards shore and got shelter back inside the Berlingo where we shivered, my hands were pure red from the cold as if I had just made a snowman with my bare hands. We waited inside the van, warmed up, enjoyed two cups of tea and a mince pie then waited for a long time, we switched off all internal lights, let our eyes adjust to the darkness then scanned the skies for a sign of a break.

Suddenly above the NW horizon I saw a star appear, then more stars, then the sky began to brighten as the blanket of cloud began to slowly unfold over the sea, a clearance was heading our way so this could be our only chance of the night so Roisin and I got back outside into the rain, wind and aerial sea foam and once more headed through the darkness facing the rain head-on as we advanced once more across the rocks and stopped at our chosen spot. The rain stopped then suddenly the cloud yawned open to reveal a bright aurora, we forgot all about the cold as soon as we saw the sky, it was happening, this was the moment we had waited a year for. I set up the camera with 10mm lens and composed the scene with us at centre with aurora behind us and began taking 30 sec exposures on continuous shooting mode then I walked back to Roisin, we held hands, embraced, then looked towards the sea which sported beautiful white swells and above us the sky was perfectly clear. The aurora was visible as a large uniform green glow which could be seen reflecting upon the sea and to the N a cluster of green search light beams proudly punctuated the sky. To the NW the Milky Way was glowing like a cloud and it brightly streamed across the heavens and blended into the ocean horizon where bright Vega gently pulsated within the green glow of the aurora, it seemed liked we were bathed in the surreal light of the aurora, we couldn't have asked for more, I got down on one knee, I looked up and saw my two favourite things - Roisin and the stars - then I proposed and Roisin said ''YES'' and that single word made my life complete. The above image captures the moment I proposed complete with stars and aurora, the camera even picked up a red colour which we missed visually which only added to the scene.

We used the clearance to get several images to cherish forever, this was a one off moment which would never happen again. Vertical rays of green and red wandered across the heavens and as they did so I checked the time, it was after midnight so this was technically December 24th - Christmas Eve! - the exact date on which Roisin had wanted to get engaged, we hadn't planned this since we had arrived on the evening of the 23rd so the fact that the clouds held us back for a while was a blessing, it was nature's way of making us wait for the rite moment so I was overjoyed to see that Roisin and I both had our wishes come true.

A special memory image of Roisin and I in each other's arms with aurora and Milky Way in full glory in front of us, it really did feel like the universe was celebrating our engagement, the aurora had gave its approval and celebrated with us.

Christmas Eve Aurora Engagement

Flash fired to reveal the conditions we were standing in which can't be appreciated during the long exposures. The sea foam was blowing sideways at us the entire time however it never dampened our spirits, I likened the foam to nature's confetti and Roisin said it was nature's champagne.

Last image before the clouds closed in once more. The tripod legs had banged against the rocks at one point and the focus had slipped which I had not noticed at the time however it didn't matter for here the sky had turned pink and the ocean was reflecting the pink colour back at us, Roisin always said she had wanted to see a pink aurora and here it happened tonight of all nights before our very eyes. It would later clear again for the rest of the night however the aurora faded soon after this until it was just a faint glow in the sky - I later learned that during this moment when the sky cleared and I proposed to Roisin - was the very moment when the aurora went into outburst and was at its peak performance of the night. Even as I write this now I'm still in disbelief on how that happened during this very moment when Roisin and I stood on those 60 million year old volcanic rocks surrounded by the wonders of nature. We where home for 03.00 UT however we could not sleep from the thrill of the aurora engagement so we spent until 06.00 UT on Christmas Eve morning going through the images and talking about the experience over and over until we finally drifted away into a peaceful happy sleep. This was the best Christmas Eve we have ever had, we will never forget this amazing moment when we began a new chapter in our lives in the company of the northern lights. Thanks very much for reading.


Martin McKenna

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