The Winter of late 2009 and early 2010 over UK and Ireland has entered the history books thanks to frigid air moving down from the Arctic followed by an Ely blast from freezing Siberia. As a result, the low temps ranged from severe to extreme levels causing widespread disruption which made the weather here headline news. The cold spell lasted for almost three weeks with snow and ice on the ground during that entire period. We got everything here, snow, sleet, freezing rain, many ice days, hoar frost, fern frost, freezing fog and whiteout conditions on the roads. During the daytime a rich selection of atmospheric optical displays appeared in the vicinity of the Sun, such as halos, sundogs, upper tangent arcs and the night time versions were even more spectacular with an abundance of Moon halos and even a stunning lunar fogbow with supernumerary arcs, all of these phenomena were caused by the play of light (natural, and artificial) on water molecules and ice crystals. The majority of days experienced subzero temps with N. Ireland recording - 5 C during maximum solar elevation, and this was without any wind chill. During January the temps reached extreme levels with night time temps falling between - 10 and - 15 C. In fact, believe it or not, weather stations in eastern Ireland recorded a nasty low of - 20 C around this same period with northern Britain getting below - 22 C. Every day and night was like a Winter wonderland with everything covered in white, either ice or snow, which made for some great photogenic scenes. No one had experienced a Winter like it in decades with the only comparisons being the big freeze of the 1980's and 1960's. To appreciate how spectacular this event was, check out the link below to see an image of the entire UK captured by a passing NASA satellite, the country is simply covered in white and similar in appearance to the mighty ice fields of Greenland.
I was enjoying every moment of this extreme cold and on a daily basis I documented the event on camera, either from the car, or when the roads were too dangerous, on foot. I covered the Maghera and Tobermore area and made several trips to the infamous Glenshane Pass which had 20" of snow in the fields which went beyond my knees, no doubt the depth was far greater than this on up the mountain. The place looked like a ski resort, so it wasn't surprising to hear reports of many people skiing down Slieve Gallion and the Glenshane hills. During Jan things became very serious due to the state of the roads, the ice on the minor roads, and on the estate where I lived, was simply unbelievable, these roads varied between 1" and 2" thick of solid compacted ice the likes of which I had never seen before, and when it snowed on this surface, which was preceded on several nights by freezing rain, the surface turned into an ice rink. It was almost impossible to stand on and as a result many had to leave their cars at home because the risk was too great. There where many fender benders and car crashes on these ice roads, even the local fire engine ran into difficultly when the truck slid sideways down a road when attending a chimney fire. It wasn't just objects of metal which suffered, it was people too, there was a record number of bone breaking falls on the ice which claimed many victims.
It was unfortunate that I broke my good camera during the early days of this cold spell, I even know the date, Dec 19th. That afternoon I was in the country, freezing cold in the snow, taking images of the majestic crescent Moon which hung over the snow-covered top of Slieve Gallion. All was going well until I tried focusing, the internal mechanism seemed to issue a digital complaint, followed by a strange noise which sounded like the slip of gears and my camera stopped working, it would no longer focus or take images and the red text on the LCD screen warned that it was a 'focus error'. This was the last day I would ever get to use the Fujifilm S6500 FD, and it was a sad day for me because I loved the camera and had captured many incredible phenomena with it, one can't help but feel sentimental attachment to a materialistic object, since it was with me through the good and bad for over two years in constant use. During this period it never once let me down, I had spent all night hunting meteors with it in the frost, it got blasted by gales, rain, hail, and snow, and brought me much joy on those pleasant nights of capturing NLCs during the Spring and Summer combined with the hot thrills and spills during Summer days while capturing thunderstorms and funnel clouds. I didn't want to give up without a fight though so I contracted fujifilm for advice, they told me it would cost £87.08 to repair, add in the post and packaging and that would be around £100.00. This I thought was unacceptable, since the camera was originally bought new for £200.00, there was no way I was going to pay half the purchase price for a two year old camera, and since the warranty was long out of date I knew I was out of luck.
However, at a first glance misfortunes like this seem to hold one back, but with a different outlook I began to see things in a more positive manner. For many months I have wanted to upgrade to high class of DSLR camera which would better suit my astronomical and storm subjects, so I set my sights on Canon's 450D. I had wanted this camera very badly but I never felt committed to the task and never fixed my sights on the camera with any great zeal, simply because the camera I was using was fine, so the need was never serious to me. Now, with my main camera out of action, things became much more clear so I have my sights back on this camera once again, this time with a keen ambitious eye. In the meantime I still had a camera to fall back on, my old Fujifilm S5600, without which I would never have been able to document this remarkable cold spell, it's both strange and fortunate how things work out because many times I had considered selling this camera however my instincts told me not to, it's a good thing I listened to them because I ended up having this camera as back up during a time of need.
With my trusty old camera I began to document this event, everything from hoar frosts on the trees, icicles hanging from road signs, to wide shots of cars and trucks struggling through the snow and freezing fog. It was a fun time with many a thrilling sight to reward my efforts. The minor ice roads were a treat to photograph by themselves, not to mention the fun of driving on solid ice between 5 and 10mph for several miles due to the risk of the car sliding off the road into the ditch. There were close shaves too, several times I almost got stranded on snow in the middle of nowhere and twice I nearly missed having two accidents caused by other inconsiderate drivers, but it was all part of the experience. Nature put on an awesome show, it was unusual here to see vivid icicles hanging from the traffic lights, road signs, and barbed wire fences. The fields and mountains shone in brilliant white as they reflected the intense low Winter Sun making the countryside look like the Arctic. The silent beauty of it all was only briefly disturbed by the sudden transit of a Pheasant, Fox, or Rabbit passing the windscreen after two distant gunshots cracked through the icy air from the hunters questing through the snowy fields.
One night at 03.00 in the morning I experienced the coldest night of my life, it was the very same one when the temps fell to - 20 C in E Ireland. I was deep in the Maghera countryside at the time captivated by the breathtaking Winter scene all around me. The night was dead calm and silent except for the distant call of a Fox, above me the night sky was remarkable and very dark with so may stars in attendance that at a first glance it was difficult to pick out some of the well known constellations. Orion and Sirius seemed to shine with a brilliance I have never witnessed before in the crisp air, in fact, every star looked a magnitude brighter that it should and the Milky Way was glorious, even within the constellations where it's glow was usually feeble. Low in the E a large waning Moon hung above the distant trees with a vibrant amber colour complete with Moon illusion. Below the stars the country was brilliant white with snow and ice on everything the eye could see, it was the perfect scene and a memory I shall never forget. The only thing missing was a great comet with huge curving dust tail, I imagined that a comet similar to the great 1910 spectacle would have made the scene perfect in every way, and with the way things are going with the unpredictability of nature at the moment I wouldn't be surprised if we were soon graced by a new icy visitor in the sky.
It wasn't just the sky which moved me on this night, it was the cold, I have no idea what temp it must have been but I would speculate that it easily would have been - 15 C. It was so cold that it actually hurt!, it wasn't only my exposed skin being attacked, but also my insides, my lungs even hurt when I breathed in the icy air and it wasn't long before the inside of my nose froze over. The highlight was touching a metal gate with my gloved hand, and within 2 - 3 sec's it had frozen onto the surface of the metal, without any exaggeration, and required a hefty pull and complaining tare of the material before I could separate it from the metal surface. This certainly earned the wow factor.
With temps in the minus double figures at night and sub zero during the day it wasn't long before exciting things began to happen. The Rivers and major Lakes all froze over completely and the antics of the public where soon getting major coverage on the television. The River Bann, Foyle, Moyola, Grillagh and many more were frozen over then Lough Fea froze solid from shore to shore. This is a fairly deep lake in the country between Draperstown and Cookstown. People arrived there in large numbers and walked across the lake, then they began driving on it with quads and cars!. There were also fun and games taking place in the form of ice hockey and even ice fishing which was a surreal sight to see on the news. The Police had to watch the area and prevent people from risking their lives on the unpredictable ice.
Then I began to hear reports that sections of Lough Neagh had frozen over which really got me interested. Lough Neagh is the largest fresh water lake in the UK and readers to the site will be no stranger to it as you will have seen it mentioned many times during 2009. The entire Lough Neagh basin is a great place to be if you wish to increase your chances of capturing thunderstorms, funnel clouds, tornadoes and waterspouts. I'm no stranger to the area so when I heard the reports of it freezing over I was more than tempted to head down there. There came a point when I was getting so many emails from readers telling me that I should check it out that I couldn't resist anymore so on Sunday January 10th my Mum and I decided to drive down to the NW shore of Lough Neagh at Ballyronan Marina to enjoy the experience. I honestly wasn't expecting to see too much, perhaps 30m of ice, but what I did see really took me by surprise and I knew in an instant that I was looking at something very special and rare, perhaps even historical, so I was almost out from the car before it even stopped.
This is the Lough shore in front of the car park. The entire area of water out to those bushes in the distance was solid ice!. Panning the camera through a 180 degree arc showed a similar scene. Considering the turbulent nature of the water here it must have took some going to turn this body into ice, and it wasn't thin ice either, it was solid in every degree, more than enough to walk on for a considerable distance, which clearly others had done.
As if proof were needed, here are the Ducks sitting on ice taken with the 200mm zoom lens looking across the ice pack where many of the Birds where located, including several Swans. The last time I was at the Marina was during the early Autumn when a severe flood event had taken place, the contrast between then and now was difficult to take in.
I worked my way around the shore to the L and as I entered the large bay where the boats where moored I was blown away by the extent of the ice. That's not much of a warning sign is it?, however one good argue with great confidence that a sign wasn't needed because common sense should prevail. In the real world common sense isn't very common and as one person said on our forum, warning signs were needed to protect people from themselves. That entire area of white is solid ice, I heard unconfirmed reports from various people that the thickness of ice here varied between 4" and 10". The signs may as well have been invisible because many people could be seen walking over the ice for a considerable distance, even over to those distant boats which I thought was both amazing and frightening in equal measure. You can see the dark rocks and tree branches on the ice where people had thrown them to test the strength before venturing out on foot, and into the world of the unknown.
Despite the rawness of the cold day many people arrived to admire the scene and experience this unique event, cars where constantly arriving and leaving during the entire time I was there and the majority of the occupants had brought along digital cameras and video recorders to prove to their friends that they had walked on the ice.
During my visit I made sure to document the event with still images and video footage and ended up almost filling a 2GB card. Out of all the sights I have seen during this extreme Winter, this was by far the most impressive and a true climax of the cold spell. As I took in the scene I really did wonder if I would ever see an event like this again, perhaps not, or maybe Winters like this will become more common, who knows, for me it was a new experience and a memory I will always cherish. At least now I can say that I saw a large area of Lough Neagh frozen solid. It proved to be tough going using the camera though due to the cold temps and the bitter wind chill blowing in from the E which attacked any exposed skin. Everyone seemed very well kitted out for the event, some even looked cosey and warm, I on the other hand just cannot use a camera with gloves on so I suffered a great deal.
It was a surreal sight to see boats frozen solid on the Lough with large chunks of ice surrounding their keels. There wasn't the slightest motion from them, it looked like they where resting on white concrete.
These guys were fun to watch, they just casually walked onto the ice and went further and further out as if it was normal. This is another 200mm zoom shot indicating how far out they where. To test the ice, they picked up several very large rocks and throw them into the distance, I was expecting to hear a crack, or at least a complaint from the ice, however the rocks simply bounced off the ice producing an amusing hollow sound which echoed across to the shore, it must have been very thick indeed!. You can watch this happen in video clip 1.
I continued on my walk and climbed up the steps to higher ground which provided a view across the next larger bay to the N of the first. The boat on the L is the 'Maid of Antrim' frozen solid on the ice.
Down near the shore now on lower ground at the entrance to the large bay, Maid of Antrim straight ahead. I was shocked by how thick the ice was along that channel to the R, I was amazed. You could easily walk along that ice up to the boat if you wanted but I wasn't going to risk it. I walked along the path with some trepidation because the rocks and wooden boards were very slippery but I ended up retreating back to the concrete because I had a bad feeling. I didn't want to slip and fall in, just incase I landed on a weak spot in the ice. Readers who don't know the area cannot appreciate how deep this water is unless you have been here before and have grown intimate with its depth at various locations. If you broke through the ice anywhere here you would be in serious trouble, the odds would be stacked against your survival.
This is the other boat beside the Maid of Antrim, the image speaks for itself. Again, it was dead still with no motion at all indicating the severity of the ice.
More people arrived to walk on the ice and take images, I don't think I've ever seen so many cameras in the one place before due to a single weather event. It was obvious from the body language that they were discussing if they should dare walk across the ice, before they arrived I seen people walking across it, even far to the L beyond the frame of this image.
They didn't venture far out, a wise decision. It's strange the mentality of some people though (not these), I seen Mothers telling their Children to walk out on the ice so they could get images, but not being satisfied they told them to walk out even further still, repeat this several times and that's what I saw, unbelievable.
Just to press the point, that's all thick ice, as far as you can see. You can see foot prints in the powdery snow and the initials of those who stood on the lake earlier. I watched with amusement as several people simply walked around the boats, from one side of that wooden walk way to the other, then climb onto the boat and take pics. You can't get onto the boats due to a locked metal gate, however with the frozen Lough everything was easy access.
I really liked this elderly gentleman, he simply walked across the dangerous deep water and struck up a conversation with me. I was instantly impressed by him and his outlook on life. He was one of the few people there who remembered the big freeze of the 1960's when Lough Neagh last froze over. He informed me how the entire Lough, from shore to shore, was frozen solid and how his mate rode across it on a bicycle, he remarked that his friend fell off it, with a reflective chuckle, however the ice was solid enough to support his weight. It must have been a fantastic experience for this delightful man, who was over 80 yrs old, to have witnessed a freeze like this twice in his life time. It made me appreciate my own experience of the event even more when the reality of the extreme freeze finally hit me. He asked me to take a few images of him standing on the ice to show his family, which I happily did, then he invited me out onto the ice, up to this point I hadn't walked over any of the deep sections. I knew it was fine from watching others, and besides I couldn't let an 80 year old man show me up lol, so I walked out to him for a short period over the deep section. It felt wonderful, and without any exaggeration it was like walking on concrete!. There wasn't even a hint of a cracking complaint from the ice, just the nice crunch of the light snow on top. I didn't hang around though and was soon back on the bank, it seemed like a dream walking from deep water to bank as if they were one.
Another zoom shot across the ice towards the frozen boats, hard to believe this is N. Ireland isn't it. Note the bottle to the lower L which someone must have thrown out to test the integrity of the ice. More on page 2.