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Elephant Rock Geomagnetic Storm, Star Trails & Time Lapse - Oct 7th 2015

On the morning of October 7th 2015 I knew with certainty where I was going to be that very evening. NOAA had issued a G2 geomagnetic storm watch covering the period from October 7th to 8th thanks to a Co-Rotating Interaction Region or CIR associated with two solar wind streams, CIRs are disturbances within the sun-earth environment where slow and fast moving solar wind streams meet, I like to think of this as somewhat similar to what storm chasers call convergence when wind fields from different directions meet. When two solar wind streams merge they tend to disturb, buckle and invigorate the Interplanetary Magnetic Field (IMF) causing greatly enhanced episodes of geomagnetic storming called a 'sub storm', when this happens the resulting aurora activity can exhibit dramatic and unpredictable outburst events which are a must see for any aurora observer. This has been a strange season for aurora chasers due to the complete lack of CMEs or even flare producing active regions and for this reason almost all the aurora activity generated thus far has been from solar wind stream encounters from coronal holes, even the Bz has never went far south this season however the earth's magnetic field was disturbed enough to generate numerous aurora displays in the KP4-5 category which have been easily visible from the north coast of Ireland and even well inland too. However with the CIR acting as a catalyst I knew based on previous experience that this set-up was going to produce something photogenic and impressive so for the first time this season I felt truly excited and motivated with my adrenaline flowing from the moment I woke up.

Even during the morning the oval looked big with yellow colours and I just knew then that it was going to hold until darkness which would be in another nine hours time. Previous to this I had been doing a lot of night sky photography over a four week period with John Fagan and Paul Martin shooting star trails and time lapse which involved a lot of late nights, long hours, lack of sleep and exhausting drives home at all hours of the night. Most of these shoots had taken place along various locations on the Co. Antrim coast with John Fagan on moonlit nights, the week before John and I had a thrilling late night shoot at Ballintoy under completely clear skies which was truly magical, our conversation naturally fell on the subject of auroras and we decided that we would re-visit this location when the first decent display appeared, we had seen several weak displays over the weeks however we both felt that a big one was imminent. Now it was happening and I had such a good feeling, the forecast was for clear skies with slackening winds under high pressure so the coast was going to be my target area as I wanted a sea breeze to keep any mist and fog at bay and prevent dew forming on my lenses, furthermore this would be the first time I was going to specifically shoot time lapse of the aurora so this was going to be a busy night, I just hoped the aurora would hold together until nightfall.

Time was going in fast and I had several things to do, I charged all my camera batteries and got diesel for the van then drove my mum to the mechanic to get her car checked before going for an MOT then my good mate Niall arrived (soon to be best man) and together we drove to Cookstown so Niall could get fitted for his suit, after that we grabbed a coffee in town and caught up with the latest in life then I drove back to Maghera then drove mum back out to the mechanic to collect her car then I rushed back home again. The sun was setting already and soon it would be dark and there would be no time for dinner, when there is a strong aurora brewing you never ever be late, you make sure you are on location in time and nothing else matters if you want to see nature at her finest, that's my philosophy and I always live by it, I have been seldom late for a night sky event in my life and all being well I had no intention of changing that tonight. I grabbed a few snacks from the fridge, filled my water canteen then had one last look at the charts, the oval was now very big and covered in deep red colour with the Bz holding at -9, these were big developments and it was clear that this aurora was going to be even stronger than I had anticipated, my heart beat quickened, I looked outside and the sun had set and I realised that I needed to get on the road immediately.

I drove N as fast as I could however it was going to be tight, I needed to be at Ballintoy before it got dark as I had to allow time for our hike from the car park around to our favourite spot. Every evening in which I had drove to the coast over the last few weeks went without incident and I always made great time and even seemed to flow however there must be some universal law which states that when something big is happening then everything gets in your way and tries to hold you back, or at least this is what I felt like tonight, it seemed in every town I went through I got red lights, I got stuck behind slow moving tractors and trucks with no chance of passing, I was talking to myself and getting agitated however there was nothing I could do but be patient and hope for an opening and after what seemed like forever I made it through Portrush and just as I emerged onto the coastal route I couldn't believe my eyes, the sky was still bright at dusk, I mean bright!, the only star visible in that direction was Capella and adjacent to it was a vivid and broad green pillar of light coming through the dusk glow, I was shocked and thought I had made a mistake, perhaps lights were reflecting on the glass but no, I did a double take and sure enough this was the real thing, the aurora was already visible before darkness and even before proper twilight.

I just wanted to get to Ballintoy, the aurora was happening, I was still on the road, I felt this sudden rush and put more pressure on the accelerator however I had to brake and go back down the gears, wouldn't you know it, a slow driver in front of me, no L plates or R plates, I kid you not this car was moving at 30 mph across the entire coastal drive, I was furious and couldn't get past so I had to stay behind, the drive into Bushmills seemed like a life time however they went right at the roundabout and I went left and I finally broke free and out into the open countryside where I could drive with intent. I arrived at Ballintoy car park, there were already photographers there preparing their gear, I met John Fagan and Glenn Miles who had kindly waited on me, in the twilight sky a bright green arc was clearly visible high in the N and NW before the sky got dark, it had been a long time since I had seen an auroral form like that coming out of the twilight sky, it was must have been flirting near G3 at this stage, this aurora was in our faces and its true glory would manifest before us in a matter of minutes. The three of us began our hike around the shoreline leaving the lights and entering the darkness into rural and ancient territory, I had to admit that at this point I was feeling extremely pumped up, I was in the zone and extremely focused, I live for moments like this. Glenn headed off in a different direction while John and I continued on to our intended viewing spot and after crossing fields, stones, fences and a small stream we finally got there.

We where now standing on the magnificent shoreline between Ballintoy and White Park Bay looking across the Atlantic Ocean towards Elephant Rock. We set up all our cameras on an out-crop of dark basalt rocks as the darkness closed in around us, the show was just about to kick off, amazingly I was having bother with my gear - that universal law again - at first I could not get my tripod legs steady on top of the boulder, they kept sliding down the sides, then my second camera was clicking too fast, the cable release was loose and messing up, I panicked trying to get everything in order, why did all if this have to happen now, tonight, however I kept at it and got the tripod fixed steady and reconnected the cable release and all was in order and I let out a sigh of relief and stood back and took in the show. On the rocks in front of me was the Canon 600D with 10mm F/2.8 lens shooting time lapse, on my left hand side upon another boulder was my old trusty 450D with 18mm F/3.5 kit lens and behind us was the Go Pro Hero 4 Silver, all of these devices were shooting time lapse while to my right was John's Canon shooting a 10mm time lapse with his back up camera shooting stills, all the previous nights had paid of, we felt sharp and trained and everything was now going perfectly so John and I stood on the sandy shore and watched.

Darkness arrived with the Milky Way high in the S while over the ocean was the aurora which had just came to life and after a short period of steady glowing full of intent it went into a brilliant outburst early in the night and blew us all away. This is one of the images with the 18mm lens moments before the outburst with purple and magenta pillars filling the vacant star fields of Bootes (near Arcturus), Canes Venatici and Ursa Major, in the vicinity of the latter broad fanning blue and purple structures extended vertically above the frame and I later learned that a brief coronal form was observed from the UK at this time however we were so engrossed in what was going on in front of us that we never thought of looking up, note the more rare two tier green banding more typical of stronger geomagnetic storms.

This was the view from the other camera at 10mm while the outburst stirred into life with the solar wind blowing at over 700km/sec. The entire band was massive crossing the sky far out of frame from W to NE, I measured it quickly at 260 degrees in azimuth or 520 full moon diameters long, the pillars and rays reached over 40 degrees tall in the NW while to our right they extended well beyond 50 degrees into Ursa Minor and Lynx and even appeared above the massive dark rock formation which blocked the NE sky from our view. The huge band was vivid green and illuminated the ocean in a sublime green glow while a banshee of light swirled and whipped around inside the green mass complimented by well defined beams of blue and purple, John I agreed that we could even see the upper red colour with the naked eye, at first it looked like the stars centered around Alcor and Mizar were subdued and some were even vacant until we realised that the stars were in fact muted by the upper light from the aurora and with not much effort a red or rosy hue could be seen.

During its climax the aurora was without question in the G2 category and sporting vivid motions the likes of which I had not witnessed since the St. Patrick's night display earlier this year. The most spectacular aspect of this geomagnetic storm wasn't something which can be shown well on camera, it wasn't its size or colour which made it special, but rather it was the visual spectacle of watching its electrifying dance which really is beyond my descriptive powers, you need to have been there to appreciate what it was like to witness. Within that broad green band was a multitude of extremely bright rays, spikes and illuminous knives of green yellow and golden colours dancing in a horizontal motion with simultaneous division complimented by rapid upward motion like a knife of light slicing through the dark sky, these highly concentrated beams were so well defined and of high contrast that the background aurora form looked almost black against their brilliant light and of such great magnitude was this display that John and I feared that the aurora might 'burn out' on our 25 second exposures, however since we were shooting time lapse we dared not interrupt the camera to check so we simply let it shoot on. My old 450D really made me proud this night, despite the slower lens speed I ended up getting very dramatic captures thanks to its longer focal length which almost filled the frame with the aurora, just look at those slanted blue rays within Bootes and Corona Borealis.

John and I were thrilled by the visual show and during such dramatic displays of nature one can never seem to find a way to express one self so what usually happens is that you start talking to the sky - shouting and hollering in awe and disbelief, even vernacular - none of it is directed at anyone however this act alone seems to vent the build up of energy from watching the light show, during this moment I set up my video camera on the sand and recorded the natural sounds of the environment, the rumble of the ocean, the clicking of shutters and of course our excited comments as we watched the aurora, my intention was to add these to the time lapse which would make for a unique and personal way of capturing the atmosphere. The image above is a great example of twin tiers, what you are seeing is the brilliant aurora oval (band) viewed side-on from an oblique angle however the oval is tilted slightly on its axis, when this happens you can see both near and far ends of the oval simultaneously which really visually enhances the perception that you are viewing a vast circle of light in the sky.

The outburst suddenly eased however a few more beautiful purple, pink and red rays shone with pride in the NW with Arcturus now embedded within their transient dance. That's Elephant Rock on the left hand side, it actually does look very much like an Elephant when seen in the dark, the tail is to the left with head, trunk, and even an eye to the right. It felt like a true privilege to have watched this wonderful display of nature from this ancient location dating back 60 million years into the Cretaceous period, that's not far off from when the Dinosaurs walked the earth, we could feel the energy here, there was a real connection felt with the land and sky, the aurora connected us all and it's during times like these that I feel like these majestic events are as much spiritual in nature as they are visual. What made this aurora even more special was the fact that we were shooting time lapse and for once we had the great pleasure of being able to leave the cameras alone to do their thing while we stood back, obtained superb dark adaption and watched the entire storm visually taking in every detail of the epic outburst. Glenn Miles even arrived in the darkness and all of three of us had a good chat before he made his way back to his post where his camera was shooting it's own time lapse somewhere in the darkness.

Aurora star trail made from a selection of 10mm frames stacked together. Doing star trails with aurora during normal aurora displays works out fairly well however during strong geomagnetic storms the aurora becomes so bright that when the images are stacked the aurora can literally blow out or overexpose the final result, to combat this I needed to select less images when the aurora was not in mid outburst and stack these, it can be hit and miss and involves a lot of trial and error however I did the best I could here.

This stack blew out in a very dramatic fashion along the upper most tier so I had to reduced the exposure with a graduation filter which helped somewhat, despite this critic I'm really happy with this one, you can see the beams and swirling forms between the two rock stacks out at sea.

Later a bank of cloud appeared from the W and we began to get concerned, previous to this Paul Martin had text me to say the sky was completely cloud out back in Omagh and from other reports it seemed that inland areas were getting it bad, we hoped this wasn't that cloud moving in for the night. John and I pondered whether or not we should stop the time lapse then we finally decided to leave it running as it could add a little drama to the final video. I'm glad we did because the images turned out very dramatic indeed with that cloud bank lit from below by the lights from coastal towns with the Milky Way aloft and zero magnitude Vega visible on the outer cloud fringes sporting a blue halo while the aurora continued to grow vivid green against the black forms of the stacks, the rounded cloud form reminded me somewhat of the anvil on a supercell thunderstorm.

The clouds passed through and broke up and once again we were treated to a brilliant dark clear sky with vivid aurora producing random beams of light, later we stopped the time lapse and walked back through the dark looking for a new angle. The coastline here is covered with massive stacks which reminded me of rocky pyramids looking out across the sea, John and I decided to climb up one of these with the intention of shooting a time lapse from the top so with tripods in hand we began our ascent. All was straight forward enough until I climbed up a particularly steep face then suddenly my boots lost purchase against the brittle face and I slid down the rocks, I only fell a meter or so and was fine however I had dragged my fingers down the rock face in the process in an attempt to hold on, a sudden rush of pain hit me and I knew I had hurt myself, a quick check with my head torch showed that I had was missing a chunk of flesh from my finger tip and as a result blood was pouring out, I had no choice but to continue climbing as I wanted to see the view, I had plasters and a first aid kit back in the van however it was still too far away so I decided I would stick it out, I was glad that I did. The view from the top was amazing with the ocean below, more beautiful stacks and the aurora dancing in the sky and although the band had shrunk further towards the horizon the aurora was still making the ocean glow from its light. We watched beautiful pillars exhibiting naked eye blue and purple colours sail across the stars slowly giving the impression of some distant search light over the horizon, it was a magnificent view while behind us Canis Minor, Orion and Canis Major rose into the E pre-dawn sky and it was from this vantage point where we shot another hour of time lapse with our 10mm lenses watching every detail of the aurora while several bright meteors ablated above us.

Although the images look surreal it was far from it in the material world, due to our greater elevation on top of our stack and our exposure we felt every second of that hour spent here, a bitterly cold easterly breeze cut through our clothes and chilled us to the core, we were freezing and add to the fact that my finger was still dripping blood with the shock and cold shivers associated with cuts and you can imagine that it took alot of resolve to stay where we were, the time lapse had started so we had to stick it out. I found some kitchen roll in my camera bag and wrapped my finger up then we both knelt low to hide from the wind. The aurora was still impressive during this time with glowing patches and orbs and forms flickering, pulsating and flaming above the horizon, the area near Hercules seemed particularly prone to these features, despite its now low size this aurora was extremely dynamic and full of life, it must have been putting on a jaw dropping show further N, the show was amazing enough to numb our discomfort and forget our cold chills and for that we were thankful, when the last bright ray spiked near Vega we stopped our time lapse and ended our shoot, it was now 03.00 UT.

Star trail with 300 stacked images and aurora, that's the one single ray which lasted so long and drifted so slowly that it was visible on at least six exposures. We made our way back and this time the car park was empty, what a contrast to earlier in the night, I cleaned my bleeding finger, got plasters on, ate a bar of chocolate and had a well deserved drink of water then John and I parted ways and headed home, I was back in Maghera for 04.00 UT, what a fantastic night indeed.

The following night had more aurora activity and the charts looked good so during a last minute decision I decided to go out once again, this time I took my mum with me as she had never seen an aurora display before, I knew she would be amazed if she seen some of the displays I have over the years and although tonight's activity would be nothing like the previous night there should still be something to see. This time we went to Mussenden Temple and we arrived just in time for darkness however unfortunately the aurora was up to its old tricks once again and during the time it took us to drive to the coast the Bz went back N leaving nothing but a faint glow in the sky. We stuck around anyway and I did another time lapse then photographer Stephen McLean arrived and we ended up watching the sky together, after an hour so a bright green patch appeared in the sky rite in front of us as if a light switch had been flicked on within Canes Venatici, its manifestation was truly bizarre, this patch then pulsated and would at times stretch out into a lenticular form while waxing and waning in brightness while sporting a vibrant green colour, this was followed by several faint pillars to the N which my mum saw, they were not bright and it wasn't the display I had hoped for and with a cold breeze and a growing number of sky watchers arriving shining their torches on the temple and into my camera and eyes we decided to call it a night.

The following Monday October 13th provided us with another chance of aurora with NOAA forecasting a G1 storm from a solar wind stream hit so John and I decided to met for another shoot to take advantage of clear skies. I arrived at Ballintoy and decided to take an exposure of the old church with the circumpolar stars from within a recently cut hay field, the aurora was visible as a faint green glow low in the sky with a blue/purple glow aloft however it was weakening due to the Bz going back N however I remained positive that it would return S again later. Just as I was about to leave I dropped my van keys into the long grass at the side of the road and it took me 15 min's of searching before I found them again and once I did I drove to the harbour and met up with John. I enjoyed my homemade sandwiches while John and I brainstormed about locations, the crowds were gathering once again so we changed location and headed for the Giant's Causeway. So there were where driving along the dark back coastal roads in two Berlingos with the stars above us, I was listening to the 'Twister' soundtrack on CD and was in a great mood, we passed Rabbits and we even saw a large badger casually walking through the grass at the side of the road, once we made it to the Causeway there were others there and we knew we would never get a time lapse done due to headlights from cars arriving so after another 20 min's we changed location once again and this time decided on Dunluce Castle. The castle car park was packed with cars, we couldn't believe it, we had never seen so many people here on a Monday night looking for aurora, we helped a couple who had never been here before navigate through the dark then we headed away down the steps and over the barrier down into the dangerous shoreline below the castle.

The aurora was nothing more than a faint naked eye glow for much of the night so we used the time to do a three hour time lapse of the stars, sea and cliff. Once the mid level clouds cleared the sky was beautiful and full of stars then late in the night the aurora intensified a little and produced a brief flurry of rays before settling down once again for the night, although it was not spectacular it was still a pleasant sight from this dark location beneath the atmospheric form of the castle, for me personally this was my 140th observed aurora display so it was special to me and had its own silent splendor which complimented our night, here are 300 x 25 second exposures stacked from this peaceful location with faint aurora on show. I made it back for 04.30 UT and this time I was exhausted, it was time to take a break and let my body recover from all these late nights and exposure to the cold.

Time lapse video of the Oct 7th/8th geomagnetic storm filmed with two DSLRs and Go Pro from Elephant Rock and from our second location on top of the stacks, I have also included our real time audio featuring the sound of the sea and our own reactions to the aurora which I hope captivates what it was like to be there, best watched at 1080p HD.

Time lapse from the bottom of the Dunluce castle with late night aurora appearance, the clouds really add to the first section of the video were you can see the presence of wind shear. What a wonderful run of photo shoots and great new memories, thanks very much for reading.


Martin McKenna

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