On Monday October 8th 2012 a coronal mass ejection (CME) in conjunction with a solar wind stream impacted Earth's magnetic field during the early hours of the morning which produced significant effects during daylight hours. A KP6 long duration G2 geomagnetic storm was in progress with mid latitudes on red alert on and off all day long so there was major aurora activity in the skies above UK and Ireland for hours on end and with it still being daytime the anticipation and excitement was getting to me, would the storm last another 9 hours until darkness?, and would the sky be clear?. The forecast was very encouraging with a clear sky forecast over N. Ireland with even a risk of ground frost so I couldn't wait for the hours to tick away. In my mind's eye I could already see myself at the north coast with Roisin enjoying a beautiful aurora display so it was just a matter of waiting. The day was mostly bright and clear however around sunset it suddenly clouded over which got me very concerned and as we drove towards my home in Maghera the cloud blanket seemed to get thicker however we remained optimistic that it would work out in the end. At home I logged onto the internet to check the situation while the clouds and darkness loomed outside. Mid latitudes were still on red alert and the auroral oval was over much of Ireland so it looked like it was game on so all we needed was a clear sky. Roisin and I both had a strong instinct that we would see the aurora despite the weather situation so we committed ourselves to the plan anyway, my last internet check was the infra red sat images which showed that this large cloud band was quickly moving S and behind it where large clear sectors heading towards the N coast from the northern Atlantic so I knew we were in business.
We grabbed some warm clothes and hit the road with intent. Near Garvagh we observed Jupiter breaking free from the clouds and the further N we advanced the more the situation improved and as we neared Coleraine the sky was completely clear with winking stars above the town lights so everything was going perfectly. We fancied a change of scenery and instead of going to the Antrim coast which we love so much we decided to try something different and went W at the roundabout outside Coleraine to try out the Co. Derry coastline which boasted a number of beautiful flat beaches and a great view over the Atlantic and towards Donegal, this region is also more isolated which suited us well, the only drawback was the slight increase in light pollution from distant towns however that negative point was counteracted by the unique foreground this place had to offer in the form of the famous Mussenden Temple and Downhill Estate which where perched high on the exposed cliff tops overlooking the ocean. While driving along the dark roads outside Castlerock we could see the aurora very clearly with the naked eye through the car windscreen despite our eyes being affected by the headlights of approaching cars which was a thrill for it indicated at a glance that this was a fairly significant display.
We parked in the small car park and began the walk along the dark stone path which led up to the Estate then continued on to the Temple which is a long enough walk at night which required a torch for safety reasons, it really was incredibly dark around here. Once we arrived at the legendary Mussenden Temple the aurora seemed to intensify rapidly so talk about perfect timing, this was after 22.00 BST and with magnetic midnight being an ideal time for aurora outbursts I felt the best was still yet to come so I was glad I was set up with camera focused and ready. The aurora itself was absolutely beautiful in the form of a vast band of great brilliance extending across the entire ocean horizon from NE to NW with a very striking green colour readily visible to the naked eye. The band itself was changing by the minute however at times we noticed acute changes to its form literally within seconds which indicated an energetic geomagnetic storm which was capable of doing anything, this would be similar to a rumbling volcano waiting to explode so we anticipated an outburst of rays at any moment.
During this period what got our attention more than the green band was this huge beam of bright light which seemed detached from the main aurora band by at least 40 degrees and located in isolation almost in the W sky in the direction of Donegal which looked like a slanted shaft of pale light similar to the dust tail of some great comet, it could be seen adjacent to the Milky Way and located to its W (R) and just a fraction fainter than the dust clouds within Cygnus. For a moment I second guessed myself as it seemed so far from the aurora for it looked like a bright version of the Gegenschein however it soon sunk in that it was related to the aurora and as we watched it seemed to flicker with rapid motion with strange orange streaks going through the band to the NW like ion trains which was amazing, visually it began colourless then I saw a purple hue to it and Roisin saw green, in any case it was one of the prize structure events of the night. You can see it on this image to the L of the Temple.
Time seemed to loose all meaning in the hours ahead as we blended into the night and I was kept extremely busy with the task of photographing the aurora while Roisin battled with internet coverage to monitor the activity online while working the torches to see where we where standing. At this stage the aurora band intensified again and looked simply stunning across the starry ocean with the large dark form of Mussenden Temple in the foreground, it was a surreal and slightly eerie experience to say the least accompanied by the gentle rumbling of the unseen waves against the rocks below.
For those who don't know the area this is the top of a 120ft high cliff face we where standing on, behind the Temple and the stone wall is a shear drop into the ocean below and the white lights in the distance where from fishing boats far out over the Atlantic. The green band looked beautiful sporting areas of more intense forms followed by diffuse beams which gently danced within the confines of the main band.
We where now located on the W side of the Temple looking NE and standing beside the stone wall where a bitter breeze was blowing strong enough to shake my tripod and mess up quite a few exposures so I had to keep shooting until there was a brief let-up in the breeze which was when I got this image. I often wonder what the ancient people who watched the skies from these very cliffs must have made of sights like this. Sudden meteors, bright comets, and aurora displays which broke up the clockwork routine of the nightly motion of the stars must have concerned them deeply and lacking the understanding which we do today I'm sure they must have seen these signs in the heavens as ill omens. Surrounding the Temple are the words ''Suave, mari magno turbantibus aequora ventis e terra magnum alterius spectare laborem'' which means...''Tis pleasant, safely to behold from shore/the troubled sailor, and hear the tempests roar''
This domed Temple was built in 1785 by the 4th Earl of Bristol, Bishop of Derry, and it felt great and humbling to be standing on his very footsteps watching these same apparitions in the sky and with the same sense of awe and wonder. At times like this the centuries slipped away and his thoughts could have been mine. I don't know much about the goings on of the Earl Frederick Augustus Hervey however I suspect he was a man who watched the stars keenly beside his beloved dome library. From the little I have read he sounds like a charachter who was once quoted as saying ''When God created the human race, he made men, women and Herveys'', as Bishop of Derry, Hervey was known as "the most worldly, most eccentric, most talked-about priest in the Church of Ireland". As Bishop of Derry, he was active and philanthropic, although considered at times cheerfully sadistic towards those under him; in one famous example he had the portly priests who wished to be considered for a plum position compete in a midnight run through bogs and swamps. You can read more in the above link, now back to the aurora.
We left the Temple in peace and began walking back through the darkness uphill towards Downhill Estate however we couldn't resist stopping and looking back for one last image. It was obvious the aurora had brightened again and now we could see taller rays faintly extending towards the paws of the Great Bear. We observed nice meteor activity too from the Draconid meteor shower which peaked this evening while earlier observers in other countries had observed a Draconid outburst with up to 1000 meteors per hour!.
We spent the hours around midnight marveling at the ancient ruins of Downhill Estate which looked simply jaw dropping complimented by the green aurora shimmering in the sky. A word of caution to anyone in N. Ireland reading this with the intention of giving this a go for themselves. Running along the E and S side of this structure is a fairly deep mote which is hidden by the darkness which can easily cause serious injury to anyone unfortunate enough to fall into it. Make sure you are using a torch and always watching your step or make a trip in daylight so you that you know the area well so you can walk around with greater confidence in the dark. We have been up here many times at night and know it well but even then we would never get complacent and are always aware of our footing. In this image the drop into the mote is in front of my camera yet you can't even see it in the exposure so please do be careful.
These were my favourite scenes from the night with the aurora glowing vivid green through the old stone 'windows' which was simply magical to behold. I should explain why the colours look the way they do for those who don't understand night photography. The green and red colours belong to the aurora itself and are caused by charged particles from the sun interacting with the various elements located at differing height within the Earth's atmosphere, in this case the greens and subtle reds are caused by oxygen atoms which get excited and fluoresce much in the same way as a current effects the gases in a neon light causing it to glow. Nitrogen gases cause the blue, purple, and crimson colours in some auroras however this one was biased towards green. No 'light painting' was used on any of these images, by that I mean a torch was not used to bring out the buildings, the reason for this was that a torch was not needed because the distant orange streetlights behind us and from the towns miles away all cast their glow on these rocks which got accentuated by the camera during the exposure.
Haunting and beautiful with the greens visible through every aperture in the old Estate which was perfectly positioned looking due N with the distinctive stars of Ursa Major aloft.
The auroral band looked like a green milky curve across the sea, in fact, at one stage it sported such striking curvature that Roisin said it looked like a green rainbow which I was thought was a nice description.
Mussenden Temple and Downhill Estate are considered the most photographed buildings in Ireland and are sought after by visiting tourists from all over the world so this is my own contribution to this area which I hope captivates both the amazing and unique coastline of N. Ireland and the sublime northern lights which visit our skies on irregular intervals which are always welcomed.
We left the cliffs alone and drove to lower ground and parked on the compact sand on Downhill Beach which offered us a tremendous view of the aurora which was clearly stirring and in the process of going into a sudden outburst. This image with the car was intentional however the open door was not as I had left the car so quickly to get set-up for the outburst that I forgot to close it. The new green feature below the main band just above the sea was a visual cue that intense activity was unfolding.
I used the open door to my advantage for a more unusual shot showing the aurora glowing through the car windscreen and driver's window, the glass acted like a filter greatly enhancing the green colour. Check out the stars in the wing mirror.
Several brief outbursts manifested in the form of vertical rays which began to unfurl and dance in the middle of the band and to the NE (R) which were a beautiful sight over the orange sand. A meteor can be seen to the L of the tallest ray.
The outburst vanished again leaving the green band on its own however I suspected another outburst was likely so I took a gamble and removed my 18mm kit lens and replaced it with a very 'fast' Canon 50mm F/1.8 lens then just as I got the lens focused the aurora produced another outburst and this time I felt it was meant for me. This is what a fast lens can do with an exposure of just 4 seconds!. This outbreak of rays was spectacular which got me shouting at the sky with excitement, they stayed almost stationary at the centre of the display with only slight lateral movement and were so sharp and well defined as they pierced through the black horizon haze that it was like watching a celestial knife cutting through butter. Look at the green reflecting on the sea which indicates how bright the rays were, the two images below were also taken with this same lens.
Dancing green curtains now with purple visible in the uppermost portion of the rays. The dark form in the images is from distant cloud and haze over the sea however these rays penetrated clean though, they must have been quite a sight to any fishermen out in the ocean this night.
Another compact cluster of brilliant rays which looked like searchlight beams pointing skywards from the ocean. This was during the early hours of the morning and time was pressing so Roisin and I decided to call it a night with this fantastic memory forged into our minds to look back on in future years. All the way home I could see the aurora glowing in my wing mirror and once we arrived back home in Maghera it could still be seen with ease above the numerous streetlights of our estate which was a testament to the quality of this wonderful aurora display. Thank you nature for yet another great show and thanks to you the reader for your time, I hope you enjoyed the images.