Noctilucent Clouds (NLCs) are thought to be related to solar activity so with the 11 year solar cycle one can expect two periods when there will be a significant change in NLC frequency associated with sunspot numbers called solar minimum and solar maximum. The former happened during 2009 which resulted in the most visually spectacular NLC season I have ever witnessed in living memory due to a record low solar minimum, however as the activity on the sun increases towards the next solar maximum in 2013 one can expect a decline in the frequency of displays and with 2010 being the worst season so far I was expecting 2011 to be similar, or worse, so I had very low expections, however I am an optimist and from experience I know that NLCs are unpredictable and even during poor seasons there is always the chance of getting that one display which is a 'must see' event so I remained open minded and resolved to be on full alert in the hope of seeing something special. At the time of writing the 2011 season has taken everyone by surprise with an abundance of displays which have appeared at record low latitudes across the USA which no one had anticipated, the quality of the displays were impressive and one must wonder what caused this unexpected increase in activity. The answer is probably straight forward, solar activity has been very weak despite being 2 years or so away from the next maximum so this in conjunction with cold temps in the Mesosphere have made for a very impressive season indeed, however for the moment this is nothing more than speculation on my part.
My own season began in great form with a very nice 'first season display' which I felt was a good omen for the remainder of the Summer, however as the season progressed cloudy weather hampered my progress and I ended up missing several beautiful displays which put on a great show for others in the UK and US who were lucky enough to have had clear skies. During July I observed 2 or 3 nights of weak NLC activity from Belfast City while spending time with my girlfriend however I couldn't document these displays due to having no tripod, which didn't matter anyway, as the tall rooftops and chimneys would have destroyed any photogenic potential so I let them go. On the positive side Roisin, my girlfriend, did get to see her very first NLC displays from her home however inwardly I suspected that she must have been wondering what all the fuss was about since they were rather faint and unimpressive to say the least so I was a little annoyed at the mediocre show they put on for her so I vowed that she would soon see a 'real' NLC display so she would understand why I was so engrossed in checking the twilight sky every evening for glowing clouds. Well on one of those nights, July 2nd/3rd, the best NLC display of the season appeared while we were sleeping and as it turned out it was one of those faint displays we had witnessed which suddenly intensified later while we slept. The next day I saw the remarkable images on the internet and I admit to feeling a tinge of jealousy knowing what I had missed during those hours of slumber, however I let it pass and felt confident that the best was yet to come as long as I remained positive and dedicated.
One of my goals this season was to catch a major NLC display over Dunluce Castle, I had photographed the aurora over this castle earlier in the year but I have always wanted to get NLCs above it too because as far as I knew no one had ever done so before so there was great potential for a stunning photogenic and rare scene, and ever since the season started I had been trying to do this without any success at all. I had drove to the castle on many nights, either on my own or with a friend, and each time the sky was clear with no NLCs in sight, yet on other nights back home the NLCs would appear when I didn't drive to the coast but even these were sorry displays which didn't justify the drive so it really was a hit and miss affair. If only I got one last chance when everything came together with me being at the coast with a major NLC display with Roisin by my side so I could tick off all three goals at the same time, the odds were low however my instincts told me something was going to happen soon.
On July 10th my thoughts were far from NLCs, I knew it was going to be clear that night however Roisin and I had a list of plans which meant we could be occupied and would be staying well inland far from the coast so I figured that if anything appeared that night I could catch it from the country as I always have my camera and tripod with me in the car. During the evening a strange number of events unfolded which completely removed all our duties for that evening and we unexpectantly found ourselves with an entirely free evening and night which got my mind thinking. We had a lovely meal in a well known restaurant in Antrim then I suggested we head to the north coast despite being so late in the evening, I was amazed when Roisin wanted to do so as well and she admitted she had been thinking the exact same thing the entire time, so with two minds focused on one goal it seemed that the coast was our destiny and I thought that perhaps we might just get rewarded with a nice NLC display too so we drove back north feeling positive and excited by our sudden change of plan.
We made it to the north coast by late evening and watched the sun set from Portballintrae then walked along the beach and onto the majestic cliffs which show off along the edge of the Co. Antrim coast line. Time seemed to stand still for us due to the calm and peaceful nature of the sea, the only person we saw was a distant fisherman questing for prey on the rocks far below and soon we lost track of time. After some time we decided to leave as it was getting quite cool and dark so we began or lovely walk back to the car which was still some distance away. The post-sunset evening twilight was clear and beautiful with a low first quarter Moon glowing orange like some giant Chinese lantern in the sky with it's golden glitter path boldly visible on the dark blue sea which seemed to point straight at us and follow us as we walked along the smooth sand, the night was already turning magical with a brilliant atmosphere and I began to get a good feeling about NLCs, we were in no rush and everything was going perfectly so it was just a matter of being patient. We stopped to take a few images of the famous Runkerry House which looked wonderful with its orange lights contrasting against the dark blue dusk sky which made for an attractive image. Rosin got several great captures using her mobile phone camera and for a while I struggled to get a pleasing capture because it was dark, hand held, and my camera wasn't as sensitive as the auto mode on her phone, however after selecting the best settings on manual I managed to get a nice selection of stills which I was rather happy with, this one was 1/20th of a sec at ISO800.
Here's another hand held image of Runkerry House captured from further along the beach at 1/6th of a sec, ISO800, got to love the magical light at this time of the night, it really was beautiful. We continued walking then I suddenly looked behind me and what I saw put an instant smile on my face, there was a striking NLC display growing in the twilight sky to the NE some 40 degrees above the horizon, the colour was pearly white with obvious waves and bands however to the untrained eye it just looked like some upper level cloud, but if you knew anything about NLCs you would be getting quite excited to say the least as a display with this extent and quality so early in the evening is nearly always a good sign of an impending major display which could last all night long, Roisin confirmed the time as 23.30 BST then we got a plan in action, this was my chance to get that image I was after so we walked back towards the car at double speed and drove back around the coast with purpose.
When we arrived at Dunluce Castle between Portrush and Portballintrae I was expecting to see other photographers there because anyone who was even remotely interested in shooting sky events in this area would have been here, however I was delighted to find that Roisin and I where the only visitors which really added to the special atmosphere. It was from here, looking over this famous 17th century castle, where we spent much of the night observing and photographing what turned out to be the new best NLC display of the 2011 season and the best I have seen since June 2009 so I was rather pleased by its performance to say the least. I ended up taking 121 exposures from a variety of angles - angles which I had worked out long in advance from previous nights spent shooting alone from this fabulous location. These images are 18mm, a few are closer in, and all were taken with the 18-55mm kit lens at ISO400 between F/5 and F/5.6 with exposures ranging from 6 to 8 sec's. It was utterly brilliant to witness these truly amazing glowing clouds above the dark outline of this Castle on such a silent calm night, and even more special because Roisin was with me so she finally got to see her first 'real' NLC display after all. You can see Roisin standing in the above image near the railing admiring the view.
The dark form to the L and centre is Dunluce Castle itself (obviously) and the dark form to the R is the cliff which extends far out to sea and above the ocean horizon is a dark layer of cloud partially obscuring the lower regions of the NLCs, that blanket of cloud is miles away to the N and NE and probably over Scotland itself so some observers were already missing this spectacular show. For the above image and the 4 below I set-up the camera on the other side of the protective barrier which protects tourists from falling off the cliff onto the rocks below so I was shooting from a dangerous position with little room for error with a vast vertical drop either side and straight ahead.
The NLCs were so bright (type 5 shadow caster) that their electric blue colour could be seen glowing on the ocean below. The NLCs themselves extended from NE of N through to the NW sporting vivid blue and white colours on a bed of atmospheric orange near the base. The structure was stunning with sharp 3D-like bands casting shadows on the background NLC veil with ripples, waves/herringbone, large scale whirls, and lacunosus holes so it was a very complex display with visible changes taking place by the minute which Roisin pointed out with great interest.
At the top of the dark cloud bank to the LHS you can make out distant K-H waves which look quite cool in contrast with the NLCs. On the images it's evident that our normal weather clouds are dark, this is because they are located much lower in the atmosphere within the Troposphere and hence don't get illuminated by the sun during night time. NLCs however are located in the Mesosphere some 83km above ground literally on the edge of space which is why the sun catches them on Summer nights, it is mainly for this reason why the clouds appear to glow at night. Check out the waves/herringbone structure within the NLCs to the L above the highest portion of the castle, these have been described as similar to the shape of sand ripples on a beach at low tide which is a very fitting description as we saw those same forms on the beach earlier and the similarity between the two was quite striking.
This was now 01.30 in the morning and us sitting here watching this spectacular show really did feel like some kind of magical dream. The only negative point I found with this shoot was the complete darkness of the castle in the frame, if by some means the castle was illuminated by a light it would look absolutely incredible, however this was not to be the case tonight as NLCs are simply so bright that they require a short exposure which rendered the castle as a black shape. If this had been an aurora I could have used a long exposure to collect the ambient light in conjunction with passing car headlights to bring up the stone work but this simply doesn't work on bright Summer nights with NLCs. It could be possible to get the affect I wanted if a powerful torch was used to 'paint' the castle in light during the exposure, I may try this idea another time to see if it has potential. Having said all that I do think the dark shape of the castle adds a haunting look all of its own.
We moved to higher ground, climbed over another safety rail on the edge of yet another cliff, and took more images showing the NE segment of the display to the R of the Castle. The R section of the NLC display was simply awesome with extremely complex structure. NLCs may look slow moving when your'e watching them however keep in mind that this is an illusion due to their great height, in reality these clouds are moving at 400 miles per hour through the Mesosphere!
Same location with the camera panned more to the N (L) showing Dunluce Castle once again. It really was so quiet and peaceful here, I took a break from the photography so Roisin and I could enjoy the scene together while sitting on the grass, it was the perfect Summer's night.
Dunluce Castle really does have a haunting quality about it, this is because it probably is haunted or at least has some vibrational energy which stores the memories of its history within those stone walls, if it could speak it would have quite a story to tell. There used to be a large kitchen at the back of the castle (on the side of the castle facing out to sea towards the NLCs in this image) which collapsed into the raging sea below, many of the occupants in the kitchen, including the servants, fell to their deaths with it, only a young boy survived because by chance he was standing on the only part of the floor which didn't fall away. The families which lived in this castle were a war-like clan who were involved in many battles, it is said that the clan leader was once quoted as saying that no member of his family ever died in bed, they obviously had a sense of humor too!
Zoomed into 55mm to highlight the structure within the NE (R) section of the display where a brilliant collection of knots, waves, and whirls can be seen. Capella is the star visible on the RHS.
This one was taken from higher ground again at wide angle, the NLCs extended out of frame to the L and R, they must have been over 160 degrees in azimuth. This was approaching the darkest time of the night when the sun was at its lowest declination below the horizon, when this happens NLCs will lower in height towards the horizon and it's during this time that the clouds can show their finest structure, this is because we are viewing them from an oblique angle which is my favourite time to photograph them.
The NE sector really got our attention due to its spectacular delicate structure, check out that amazing cluster of whirls/loops below 'The Kids' to the RHS. For those who don't know 'The Kids' are the three fainter stars shaped like a triangle below the bright star Capella.
The temp had really dropped and both of us had got really cold at this point and standing on dew-soaked grass at this hour of the night didn't help our core temps so we walked back to the car park. Roisin got in the car to warm up and I stayed outside for a few last images, it was 02.00 and the night would be over within an hour or so and we still had a long drive back, we could have stayed if we wanted however that bank of dark cloud over Scotland was starting to cover the NLCs.
Last image of the night, that's a van at the bottom of the car park, I couldn't tell if anyone was in it but I had a feeling it was occupied so I went about my business as quietly as possible. We began our late night drive back but the show was far from over, when we where located in the dark countryside between Coleraine and Garvagh doing 60mph on the quiet roads I could see the NLCs vividly in my wing mirror which was an incredible sight with the sky glowing electric blue and framed by the ceramic square casing of the mirror with the dark forms of trees and hedges moving under the display in a blur. The next day in the cold reality of daylight it was hard to believe that we had been there watching this, it felt like a dream such was the quality of our adventure. Thanks for reading.