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Mussenden Temple Halloween Aurora Outburst - Oct 30th 2013

At last after a lengthy quiet spell the sun came back to life with new active regions on the Earth side of the solar disk with unstable magnetic fields which produced several M-class and X-class solar flares which were some of the most powerful eruptions of the season. A quick look at the latest spaceweather data following these eruptions indicated that numerous CMEs where generated and where heading for the general direction of our planet, in fact, it wasn't a straight forward series of events to forecast because of the complicated mass of CMEs which seemed to intertwine with each other with several hitting at various times in the wake of a lead CME so it was nightmare for forecasting however the consensus was very clear, there would be several nights of aurora events that week and all of them taking place during the dark half of the lunation which meant ideal hunting conditions, furthermore the unsettled weather looked promising enough for observing so the chances of success were good, however I needed an impact which would give our planet's magnetosphere a healthy hit in conjunction with clear skies and the peak of the activity hitting at night which made for a triple whammy of ingredients to get a proper chance of aurora photography.

The online alerts were out early so I left Belfast earlier than unusual and arrived in Maghera as darkness fell on the 28th however despite a lot of waiting and refreshing charts nothing happened so I held my hopes off for the following day, the 29th. That night there was a gentle stirring of geomagnetic activity which generated aurora activity at high latitudes however I never did have much faith in it for N. Ireland. Omagh photographer Paul Martin and I were chatting about the chances via private message on facebook and we almost talked ourselves into hitting the coast however our instincts told us that something wasn't correct and that the long trip would be wasted so we remained cool and held off for better prospects. That night the auroral oval was brushing Scotland and I suspected there would be a glow from the north coast which got confirmed by several photographers however a full commitment on behalf of the aurora looked out of the question thanks to the northerly tilt of the IMF (Interplanetary Magnetic Field), also called the Bz component (pronounced Bee Zub Zee) which needed to be south to get serious activity so instead I used the time to study the latest spaceweather data to make a more strategic decision. Aurora hunting is similar to storm chasing - the rewards are high, the visual and photographic trophies can be epic, however the chances of success are often slim and there are are many forms of unpredictability that like to reveal their hand just when you make that big decision so sometimes you have to just make a call based on your own instincts and experience and let nature do it's thing, however that task is twice as difficult for you need to forecast Earth weather as well as spaceweather in unison which are two of the most unpredictable balls you could possibly juggle.

My own personal forecast was for October 30th/31st, the latest animated CME graphics from the STEREO spacecraft told me all I needed to know. Two CMEs were inbound, the latter was expected during daytime on Halloween however it looked very faint and weak and there was a high possibility it could miss Earth completely. The first CME however was what I set my heart on, it was associated with the recent M6-class flare and looked healthy and strong and would deliver a solid glancing blow sometime during the evening or early night of October 30th so this looked to be the best and only chance of a decent show. Paul Martin had been pondering the same thing so we decided to trust our instincts and organise a photo shoot for that evening and furthermore the forecast was looking good with a weak cold front crossing W to E across N. Ireland during daytime hours followed by a clean clear air mass with showers which meant good periods of clear sky interrupted periodically by cloud and showers which sounded good to me. A closer look at the forecast revealed greater interest, not only would there be clear skies but also it looked like a classic unstable post-frontal air mass with 200+ CAPE over the ocean and LIs of 0 to -1 in a strong but mild SWly flow, when cold air moves over a warm moist ocean it generates convection during Autumn and Winter months so there looked to be the added bonus of ocean thunderstorms, I wasn't expecting anything of note however the chance was there which was another tick in the box.

Mussenden Temple Aurora Outburst

Halloween Eve and a high chance of aurora, I love this stuff, the last time I saw a Halloween aurora was during 2005 and it was an epic show and among the finest top five auroras I have ever seen so I was excited at the prospect of catching another at this famous time of year, I wasn't expecting anything close to the caliber of the 2005 geomagnetic storm however anything half decent at all would be great, all I wanted was a bright arc and enough vertical rays to make for a cool image. I prepared my camera gear, filled two flasks of tea and packed a container with Monkey nuts for energy then I was ready. Paul left Omagh with his friend Steven Kelly in two cars who later met me in Maghera then the three of us drove to the north coast under a canopy of bright stars, our hopes were high, the excitement building, and so was our anxiety. Conditions were far from exciting when I last checked online before leaving the house, the KP was at 3 with a twitching IMF which hadn't made up its mind what it wanted to do however what got me excited was the state of the auroral oval which looked very bright, healthy, and as the Earth rotated it's night side towards the incoming solar particles the oval would begin to intensify and propagate S and as if to confirm this hunch the oval was already flirting with the Scottish coastline. I was already 100% sure we would see an aurora from the coast as a green band at the very least and anything more would be a bonus and furthermore I suspected the best of the show would happen anytime soon, it looked that way from the charts and also it needed to happen because a showery trough would be moving in from the W later in the night introducing more cloud cover so it was now or never.

We had a quick stop in Garvagh to adjust my headlight beams which seemed to be a little too high, they needed to be further S like the IMF so we got that sorted (cheers Paul) then got supplies from the shop. I was craving my coffee latte which I always had when on the road chasing sky action however the machine malfunctioned with white steam billowing out from the nuzzle like the Saturn V taking off from the launch pad. I had to do without it which annoyed me as I needed a warm drink for this cold night head so I simply opted for a Lucozade and Dairy Milk then we got back to the car. Paul informed me he had bought a Boost bar, we have this ongoing joke about how crazy Boost bars are, the energy from them is astounding and we always cautioned each other with a laugh about not eating them as anything could happen, and that anything could be as serious as the Earth stopping spinning or the moon imploding and such things so we laughed when Paul began to eat it and wondered what mighty surprises the Boost would have in store for us this night.

We arrived at the coastline in good time between Castlerock and Downhill Beach, we wanted to shoot any aurora from Mussenden Temple, Paul and I had been there two weeks previous when a faint aurora was manifesting and we both found several nice angles, I had my heart set on one particular angle and just needed a good aurora to complete the scene, we said back then we would be back at Mussenden again when a more serious aurora was expected, so here we where. However this time we had Steven who is also a photographer but he had never seen a real aurora display before and was eager to catch his first on camera, this made me nervous as he had traveled all the way from Omagh and had an early rise the next morning so I hoped that nature would show off and make the night worth the drive for him. As soon as we got out from the car we saw the aurora in the northern sky even before full dark adaption set it so we cheered and were happy because we had already succeeded so we walked further down the dark trail until the majestic form of the Temple came into view. The aurora was an obvious glowing enhancement stretching across the NW to E of N sky sectors 20 degrees high with no structure. After a little time we could have swore we saw faint beams at the limit of vision then Steve and I saw a very faint red colour above the green arc, we all concluded the aurora was maybe getting stronger and was definitely changing by the second so we all split up and went our separate ways to do photography on our own.

I immediately went to my favourite position on the W side of the Temple, that way I could frame the Temple with the stars, the wall leading into the frame, the aurora and a section of the ocean below, this was a 10mm lens so I was able to get very close to the structure and let it dominate the frame. I got the perfect composition I wanted and took exposures of the faint aurora, I was thinking if only this display could go into outburst then this would make a cool image however the aurora was low and faint. I recall looking down at the ground for a moment to make sure I wasn't brushing against the tripod with my leg then suddenly I heard Paul shot ''beams!!'', I looked up and was instantly astonished, the aurora had gone into a major outburst as if a switch had been flicked!, the time was approx 21.30 UT and the outburst put on an epic show for the next 15-20 min's. Visually it was already the best aurora I had seen since April 2012 (report) and I have to say I was impressed beyond words, the sky across the ocean horizon just came to life in a wave of dramatic visuals with a vast network of vertical beams dancing over the sea against a backdrop of black sky and stars, the beams formed a superb apparition across the entire arc with the highest concentration to the NW with intense blue-white curtains of light cutting through the lower cloud and forming broad pillars of light which then split into fine beams which themselves multiplied into more beams which all moved across the sky from L to R in unison, it really was difficult to describe in words, the show was simply breathtaking!!. The beams shot over 40 degrees high (80 full Moon diameters) and pierced into the paws and belly of the Great Bear where the tops of the ghostly searchlight beams boasted a vivid red colour as they blended into the dark starry sky and filling a generous portion of my ultra wide angle lens which put a smile on my face.

Mussenden Temple Aurora Outburst

I quickly moved to a new angle looking face-on to the Temple and just in time to catch auroral curtains forming in waves within the base of the beams. We were all on a natural high shouting at the sky and yelling at each other saying ''Wow'', ''Oh My God'', ''Look at the beams!!'' and general shouts of joy and exhilaration at the tremendous show nature had put on for us. It was an amazing period of visual observation and constant shooting, you could feel the change in energy between us, it was as if we and nature were all connected feeling the very same emotions. What made this even better was that Steven got to see his first proper aurora, Paul later informed me that he was standing beside him and noticed that Steven was starring at the sky with mouth open in utter amazement then Paul had to break him out of his trance and say ''take images man quick!!'', Steven was so awestruck that he had forgotten to take images!, he later said he had never seen anything like it before so he must have froze from the visual impact. I love hearing stories like this and I was overjoyed he got that experience and not to mention beautiful images to take home, Paul and I agreed he would now be hooked for the rest of his life just like us.

Mussenden Temple Aurora Outburst

Shooting from the E side looking NW, that plane trail would show itself in just about every aurora image taken that night at the coast by numerous photographers, I had to select an image when it had less of an impact on the aurora scene. The outburst was subsiding slightly however there where still formations of beams showing off to the NW so I kept shooting as much as possible.

Mussenden Temple Aurora Outburst

I walked back up the path to higher ground where Paul was shooting for a quick chat, we were buzzing with excitement so I got this quick memory shot of Paul and the aurora. To the NW (L of Temple) there was a striking formation of tall beams fanning upward from the auroral band, at first they reminded me of the famous rendition of the synchronic bands in the seven tailed great comet of 1744 rising over the E horizon before dawn then with Halloween in mind Paul said they looked like Freddy Krueger's fingers (from A Nightmare On Elm Street for those who don't know) which gave us a laugh, indeed the fine beams looked like blades or knives slicing through the sky which was brilliant to watch. You can't get this effect from the above image as it's a time exposure, it was more of a visual phenomena. The outburst vanished rapidly and went back to it's earlier state as a glow on the horizon and with the bitter wind giving us a chill we decided to take a break and found shelter at the rear of Downhill Estate where we had a much welcomed and well deserved mug of tea, sandwiches, and Monkey Nuts.

Mussenden Temple Aurora Outburst

We decided to change location as another outburst was possible anytime so we checked out the Giant's Causeway where we encountered several other photographers shooting the aurora, I knew one of them and made a friend with the other I didn't know and we all shared our story of what we saw. There once was a time you could visit any coastal location at night when there was an aurora and you would be on your own however now it's a different story, there are photographers everywhere at all the famous locations getting their own aurora images which is truly fantastic to see, it was obvious to us that N. Ireland is without question an aurora hot spot and on the world stage of places to see the northern lights. We did a little shooting however we felt we where all getting in each other's way (five of us) so Paul and I tried another part of the Causeway and witnessed another brief outburst with beams slowly waxing and waning in brightness as they crept between breaks in the clouds near the horizon then they were gone again, the above image shows three photographers enjoying the aurora, I simply lit up the famous hexagonal-shaped rocks with my red head torch.

We decided to move on once again and this time we settled at the legendary haunted Dunluce castle, by this time it was very late so Steven decided to call it a night and began the long drive home - no doubt with a great smile on his face. Paul and I stayed out in the cold during the early morning hours, the aurora was behaving itself as a faint glow on the horizon with the Milky Way streaming vertically down through the sky meeting the ocean in the NW with many meteors on view. The icing on the cake was counting 28 flashes of lightning very far away over the ocean near W. Scotland and to the N and NW from numerous thundery showers just as the models had predicted however due to the SWly flow none of these cells would come near the Antrim coast so we simply watched with enjoyment as the sky flashed away under the stars beside the enchanting dark form of Dunluce Castle.

After we were content that we had seen the best of the aurora and lightning we decided to call it a night however before leaving the coast we stopped at the lay by outside Portrush for a final look across the ocean and sky. Our attention was suddenly drawn to a small light in the darkness around a bend in the road, it was complete darkness in that direction so all we could see was this tiny moving light, we noticed it was slowly getting closer and heading our way and as it advanced towards us it became surrounded by an eerie glow, we looked at each other thinking what the hell is that?, we got ready to drive off quickly just incase it was something unearthly, then it appeared in view among the headlights - it was a man dressed head to toe in a clown outfit carrying a light beside his chest, he must have been at a fancy dress night in one of the local clubs in town, it was Halloween after all, we burst out laughing then headed S in top form and I was home for 04.30 UT and Paul an hour later. What a fantastic night, we got a stunning outburst and a Halloween aurora, Paul and I agreed that this outburst made up for the entire year of having no auroras, it was well worth the wait!

The next day I checked the charts and found out that the KP was only at 3 and because of this many other photographers missed the show because they never left home thinking that KP 3 meant nothing major was going on so it wasn't worth leaving home for and sure enough one would be dumbfounded by the what actually happened. I have been saying this for years and it's something you learn from experience. KP values are absolutely useless for making decisions regarding aurora hunting and for gauging real time activity because the values are updated once every 3 hours so you can forget about ever looking at that again in the future. A high KP is a very good thing, the higher the better, especially so if there is a rising trend in activity before darkness, eg: KP3...KP4 etc. However KP means nothing on it's own unless it is complimented by the IMF/Bz component, if the IMF is N the aurora will be weak however if the IMF tilts S (a negative Bz) then you are in serious business, this is where it's at, IMF is everything and this night was a perfect example of why it's of utmost importance and why KP is not worth looking at it. On this night the Bz was -8 or lower which was enough to generate this outburst in conjunction with increasing solar wind velocities from the CME arrival. So what exactly caused the outburst?, was it the IMF?, was it the CME hitting?, actually it was none of these - Paul and I both agreed that it was the Boost bar!. Thanks very much for reading and happy Halloween.

This is a new experimental video blog I made before leaving home to go aurora hunting on Oct 30th, it pretty much documents me discussing the aurora potential in conjunction with the weather forecast to show others the kind of information one needs to consider when seeking the aurora for themselves. The video features online charts, my aurora images from the night, then ends with me discussing the events of the night during the following day including my thoughts on the aurora and our own personal experiences and emotions. This is a test video so I may end up doing more of these in the future for a little fun, thanks for watching.


Martin McKenna

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