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Epic Volcanic Sunset Sky Show From Creggan - Nov 30th 2014

Sunday November 30th 2014 was a relaxing day for no interesting sky phenomena was anticipated, after all, there was high pressure so no chance of storms and the sun was quiet with no CME activity so it seemed nature was giving me the day off and behaving itself. It was a truly beautiful Winter's day with bright blue skies and a nip in the air which hinted that a frost was beckoning. Roisin and I where visiting in laws - as was our custom most Sundays - and with no pressing sky matters at hand I felt I could genuinely relax and switch off for a while. We spent the afternoon at Roisin's Sister's home located in the beautiful countryside in Creggan close to the north shore of Lough Neagh in Co. Antrim where I casually used the lap top to scan through the latest weather models in the hope of seeing a hint of cold and snow on the run up to Christmas. After some time I felt a strong compulsion to check the sky, I didn't know where this was coming from, maybe it was simply force of habit or perhaps my instincts were trying to tell me something was brewing, however with the curtains drawn across the windows I had no way of seeing the sky so I decided I would take a walk outside and check out the foreground as I intended on doing a star trail when the sky darkened sufficiently (so much for switching off).

I stepped outside into the cold late afternoon air and immediately spotted a beautiful sunset in progress in the form of distant band of altocumulus low upon the western horizon lit into a striking fiery orange colour by the slowly sinking sun which would soon be dropping from view, in fact, within min's I had lost sight of the disk behind trees and all which remained was that colorful cloud bank. I knew I hadn't much time to spare before the light was gone so I dashed across the yard to the Berlingo, opened the side door, grabbed my camera bag, lenses and tripod then swiftly made my way onto the front garden which was perfectly facing towards the western horizon. I set up the camera on the tripod, raised the central bar until it was high enough to clear the wire fence and plants which surrounded the garden then attached the Canon 100-400mm USM lens, zoomed in, and began shooting before the moment was lost. Much to my delight I could see another isolated country house on the other side of the field beyond the fence which made for a nice sense of scale.

However, what made it even more interesting was the fact that the owners were in the process of covering the entire roof with beautiful Christmas lights, now I was buzzing, I don't recall ever having the chance to shoot Christmas lights and a spectacular sunset before at the same time so I made sure to capture the scene on camera. It was a pleasant experience taking images while watching those blue-white festive bulbs glow brighter by the minute as the environment around me slowly darkened. The temperature was dropping like a stone, my hands were getting colder and as the min's ticked by my breath was turning milky white in the crisp air. The area was silent except for the occasional clamor of a metallic ladder - which you can see leaning against the wall of the house - as the owners made last minute adjustments to the lights before all usable light was lost, the scene reminded me of National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation and I was half expecting to see Clarke Griswold on the roof.

It was close to freezing, the light had waned and the sunset colours were greatly subdued, it was clear the show was over so I packed up my gear feeling content enough with what I had seen and made my way back inside the house into the welcome heat. I spent some time online again, enjoyed a mug of tea and a great bowl of homemade chicken curry with rice by Roisin's Sister which was delicious. I decided to go back out to make sure the sky was clear and to gauge when to start my star trail for already the brighter stars were visible across the zenith. I walked around the corner of the house and instantly got a shock - WOW - an epic sunset sky show was happening rite before my eyes, and I mean it was epic, I was instantly awestruck by the fact that it was even there as 30 min's earlier I had watched it fade, I had come out looking for stars yet instead I get greeted by a vibrant post-sunset spectacle, where had that come from?, why was this visible when nightfall was setting in?

The entire W, SW and S sky was covered in a vast area of deep orange, red and yellow colours, that altocumulus band had since moved closer and it was this cloud deck that was providing the canvas for nature's artwork. It was clear during my casual glance that this was quite an exceptional sunset and I thanked my lucky stars that I had chose to come outside at this moment to witness it. Once again I ran to the van, grabbed the camera gear, ran across the front garden but this time I climbed over the wire fence and made my way across the dew-soaked grass into the centre of the large field so I could get a better unobstructed view, I knew this was an exceptional display for I was using shooting techniques which I would only be using for night work, yet here I was applying those same settings to an event more commonly captured in daylight. I had the camera mounted on the tripod, full manual, mirror locked up, cable release attached then began taking short exposures.

This was facing W towards the country home with Christmas lights using the Canon 24-70mm F/2.8 lens at ISO 100 and aperture stopped down for depth and contrast, there's some cloud motion evident in these exposures however it did wonders at capturing the amazing colours. I refined my infinity focus by using a star that was clearly visible winking within that band of bright yellow along the horizon using live view at x5 magnification.

I didn't know where to shoot next due to the extent of the cloud structure so I switched to my old faithful Canon 10-22mm F/3.5 ultra wide angle lens with a field of view of 108 degrees to take in more of the sky, I turned 90 degrees to the left and took this exposure facing S, Lough Neagh is located behind that single tree on the hill at image centre.

Same location a little later with the camera panned slightly to the left to take in the S and SE sky, I was rather blown away at this point because there was the moon sporting a vivid corona with orange, red, yellow and blue colours in the same frame as this stunning orange-red sunset, I have never in my life took exposures with both the sunset and moon in the same frame until now, this was certainly memorable to say the least and while all this was going on a generous number of stars sparkled around me like celestial diamonds, I had to do a double take - moon, stars and sunset all together - it was happening and I was loving it.

The sunset seemed to persist forever however the sky was slowly darkening so I had to increase the ISO to 400 with 7-8 sec exposures with the 10mm lens, I have never used settings like that for a sunset in my life. It felt awesome standing within this pitch black field in the countryside with an air frost gazing at a sky on fire like this complimented by the dream-like ambient light from the moon and stars, it seemed like day and night were locked together in an atmospheric dance and the Christmas lights glowing brightly made the experience all the more atmospheric, talk about a show on the eve to December 2014.

I couldn't resist another exposure of the sunset and moon together since it was so rare and with that done the colours gradually faded and the clouds drifted across the zenith then the spectacle was gone. I walked back into the house with soaked boots and cold feet and had to warm up by the fire however my face was a glow from experiencing this beautiful transition from November to December and with it came the deep sensation that this event was a good omen for an action packed Winter to come. I was soon informed by scientist Dr. Les Gornall that this may have been a rare volcanic sunset afterglow event. Dr. Gornall had been studying the large quantities of sulphur produced by a violent volcanic eruption in Iceland and was convinced that the wind profiles were sufficient for some of this sulphur to be present in the atmosphere above UK and Ireland which would explain the rich colours and exceptional longevity of the show for so long after sunset. Thanks very much for reading.


Martin McKenna

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