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Extremely Rare Type II PSCs - Mother Of Pearl - Nacreous Clouds! - Feb 2nd 2016

When asked by my photography friends about what kind of phenomena I would love to catch on camera I always tell them about my list. This list exists only in my mind and within seconds I can begin describing various transient events, either double or triple barrled phenomena captured simultaneously or simply one extremely rare event just to say that I saw it. Within the top of this list are 'Nacreous Clouds', also lovingly called 'Mother of Pearl Clouds' or the more scientific 'Polar Stratospheric Clouds' or PSCs for short, the latter name is a dead give away regarding their location for these rarest of clouds can only form in the Stratosphere some 25km above ground - far above where commercial airliners fly - and only when atmospheric temperatures in the Stratosphere reach a staggering -85 degrees C or lower. These conditions periodically occur during the Winter months over high latitude locations such as Northern Canada, Alaska and the Arctic Circle, however even there they are not common and many residents living in these areas have never seen them at all.

Since I first began observing the sky back in 1997 (thanks to my first telescope & comet Hale-Bopp) I became obsessed with all things sky related during the night and day and was particularly drawn to upper atmospheric phenomena and optics displays due to their rarity, transient nature and visual and photographic potential. I began with sundogs, halo displays, upper tangent arcs, circumzenithal arcs and sun pillars then I got my first 1m pixel digital camera (before this I would sketch halo displays) then moved onto Noctilucent Clouds and Aurora which would become a major part of my life until the present day. However it was the rare phenomena which always got me out scanning the skies, studying books and later online in the hope of some day being lucky enough to see it with my own eyes, however no matter what it was I had to catch it from N. Ireland for there's nothing more gratifying than seeing something rare and special from your own country.

Within that top list of rarities were Nacreous clouds, they immediately got my attention because back then very few people in this country had ever heard of them, they looked beautiful from the photographs I had seen and seemed in some ways similar to Noctilucent Clouds but also similar to Iridescent Clouds, however they were still different. I researched the phenomena in depth and ended up feeling quite disheartened because sightings from UK and Ireland were considered *extremely rare* with perhaps one sighting or so per average life time. There were sightings of Nacreous clouds over N. Ireland in 1995 by trained observers, in fact, years ago I spoke to one of these observers who described the sighting to me which always left me with both awe and a hunger to see them. I figured they were so rare here that there was no point getting excited about seeing them however from time to time over the years I secretly scanned the Winter skies after sunset and before dawn during big storms just in case, however I never told anybody about it. Nobody that is except amateur astronomer John C. McConnell from Maghaberry, John and I would talk on the phone for hours every night and with John observing for over 50 years and me beginning my own journey we often talked about sky phenomena and I do recall us chatting several times about wanting to see Nacreous Clouds in the future, we both felt we were clutching at straws but I do remember John saying ''you never know''.

21 years after the 1995 sightings the Mother of Pearl clouds suddenly reappeared in the skies over the UK during the end of January 2016. Storm Gertrude had just affected the country with strong winds and flooding but it had also drawn down very cold air aloft and that's when PSCs manifested in the skies over Britain. The first sightings came in from Edinburgh, Scotland and suddenly images began to appear on social networking sights, I was amazed that morning and I knew from the images posted that they were Nacreous clouds even though the people who took them didn't know what was going on so I immediately posted an alert on facebook and twitter to help get the news out. I was amazed yet gutted we never saw them here due to cloudy skies and more than likely that was them gone forever. After chasing storm Henry on Sunday I thought nothing more of it until the following morning, Feb 1st, in Cookstown when I woke at 7am feeling the urge to use the bathroom, however I felt tired I decided to stay in bed. When I woke after 10am I checked my laptop and was amazed to see that a major outbreak of Nacreous clouds had appeared all over Ireland and N. Ireland!!!, the internet was full of images taken showing clouds of amazing colours from Donegal all the way to Dublin, people had spotted them on their way to work and had even snapped them on their mobile phones, word had got out and everyone new they were special, I have never seen so many people imaging a rare phenomena in the sky before as there was that morning. I was gutted yet again, many reports said they were visible from 7am and had I gone to the bathroom at that time I would have seen them through the window.

I wondered if that was the end of the show or could they appear again the following morning?, the forecast showed clear spells between Wintry showers so this time I set my alarm in the hope of seeing them for myself, I went to bed but didn't sleep until 3am with the anticipation then finally I drifted off. My 7am alarm woke me up, I felt so exhausted and in a trance-like state so I switched it off and went back to sleep. This could have been the end of my story rite here however for some reason my internal alarm went off and at 8am I opened my eyes in a panic then fueled by an adrenaline hit I walked across the landing into the bathroom and looked out the east facing window. The clouds where breaking and in the gaps were obvious Nacreous clouds glowing in the pre-sunrise sky!. There were still a lot of dark clouds in the sky however there were also just enough fleeting gaps to get tantalizing glimpses, I immediately ran downstairs, grabbed my camera bag, then ran back up to the bathroom. The window here is a large skylight window on a slanted roof so I opened it upward above my head which revealed the open sky through a large rectangular aperture not dissimilar to the view from an observatory. I knew I could only have minutes or seconds to get images in case the clouds closed in again so I had to get quick images, there was no time to rush outside and set up a tripod so in the low light I attached the 50mm F/1.8 lens and began taking images at a high ISO hand held while leaning on the ledge. I could see two areas of Nacreous formation, one significant highly coloured area due E above the sunrise point and another to the SE on my right hand side. The above image shows the E cluster in the form of four lens shaped clouds sporting multiple colours accompanied by more delicate PSC streaks with structure not dissimilar to NLC veil and soft herringbone streaks. The Nacreous formation to the upper left was the most striking with vivid colours even glowing through the passing dark Tropospheric clouds and it would be this one which would dominate the morning show.

The SE formation in the form of pearly white/cream streaking forms with colours on the sunrise facing left edge and streamers of fine PSC material flowing across the frame to the left like a gentle wave. Roisin got up and I called her in, despite still being half asleep I pointed the clouds out to her and she saw them too for the first time in her life. I was taking image after image with the 50mm at ISO1600 and 800 with shutter speeds of 540 and 640th/sec and taking periodic video clips to document the event. I was so thrilled at this point, finally after 19 years I was now observing these extremely rare clouds from N. Ireland, I can't even begin to describe how I was feeling at this point, however 19 years ago I never would have thought that I would be standing in my underwear watching them from a bathroom.

The sun had yet to rise and I assumed when it did the Nacreous clouds would fade so I was running out of time, then my watch got stopped by more bad weather in the form of dark showers blowing across with a bitter cold wind dropping hail stones and sleet across the rooftops, I waited and waited for the clouds to clear as they drifted E however they were very slow moving. The entire E sky was black then a little area of lightness appeared low down near the horizon where I could see at least three areas of Nacreous clouds glowing through the dark falling precip and because of their low position on the horizon they were glowing orange from atmospheric extinction, they looked like UFOs in flight.

A gap opened between the retreating hail shower and another coming in so I had just enough time to attach the Canon 100-400mm USM lens and get this close image of the higher Mother of Pearl lenticular formation which was still glowing in the dawn sky with beautiful iridescent colours.

I had time for a few sips of a cup of tea with honey which Roisin kindly made for me, got changed, the went out into the back garden of my Dad's house just as the sun was rising. Amazingly the main Nacreous formation was getting brighter and more colourful instead of the other way around just as the dawn chorus of birds announced the rising of our local star.

I switched over to the 18-55mm and ran around to the front of the house. I hate shooting sky scenes over rooftops and aerials but I had no choice this morning. That bird must have had a great view perched high up on the aerial though, you can see the Nacreous formation now with the sun in the sky. Roisin and I hit the road at approximately 08.45 and as we drove to Magherafelt we were able to watch the display out the driver's side window and even managed to take a few hand held video clips with the Go Pro however once we passed through Magherafelt the display seemed to be past its best, the colours had become muted and more white so we figured the show was over.

Then we arrived at the bus stop near Castledawson roundabout and were immediately blown away. The Mother of Pearl formation was now absolutely stunning, I couldn't believe the transformation, the rising sun seemed to enhance it's alien form, now the cloud was composed of two lenses merged together to form one large lenticular formation with absolutely vivid pink, purple and green colours, we came to a stop and quickly got out of the van for images, Roisin was snapping away with her Samsung Galaxy S6 and I was using the 600D with kit lens. I have never seen anything so rare and beautiful before, I was taken back by how large and vibrant it was even adjacent to the bight sun in the same section of sky. At this point my friend John McConnell was also taking images from his home in Maghaberry, John said he had ''never seen anything so beautiful in 59 years of observing!''

This scene is EXTREMELY RARE in N. Ireland, I felt so privileged to be out at this moment during first light in the morning with these unreal Polar Stratospheric Clouds, I never thought this day would ever happen, however I needed to stay focused and not let my mind drift so I concentrated on my photography to make sure I had a good record. This was a high contrast high dynamic range scene shooting into the sun with the Nacreous clouds in the same frame so in order to capture the colours well and avoid major overexposure I had to stop the lens down, these were between F/9.1 and F/11.3 at 800/sec which I found recorded the scene well. No images or video can do these clouds justice, there's something about the naked eye view which is difficult to describe, it was almost as if the clouds were alive themselves while the iridescent colours looked like something from an atmosphere belonging to another planet.

If you look carefully in these images you can actually see the pink and purple colours reflecting on the car windows and rooftops. Roisin and I were the only people taking images here despite people waiting on buses, they may have seen the Nacreous but perhaps they didn't know what was going on. I savored every second of the 10-50 min's we spent shooting this scene together, this was a once in a life time experience, I may never see them again and for that reason I felt truly grateful to be getting this rare treat rite now on a cold Tuesday morning in N. Ireland.

This rare outbreak of Nacreous clouds across UK and Ireland was born from an exceptional set of random events which conspired to produce the first formations of Type II PSCs in the age of digital cameras and smart phones so they could be so widely documented across the country. A significant warming was taking place over the Arctic Circle causing the Polar Vortex and it's frigid air aloft to become displaced and drift south covering UK and Ireland with temperatures varying from between -70 degrees C to below -80 degrees C with enough moisture seeding for nucleation to take place and hence form ice crystals. Also contributions from storms Gertrude and Henry which I believed help introduce more cold air and high winds into the Stratosphere with gravity waves which would have helped assist with Nacreous formation. Through the process of diffraction sunlight gets redirected through these special ice crystals when the sun is low in the sky which is what produces these beautiful iridescent colours.

This is why PSCs are often seen in the hours before and after dawn in the E morning sky and again in the W before and after sunset, however like NLCs they can also be seen in a twilight sky when the sun is not present simply due to their great height. We could still see them after 10.00 then after this the colours quickly faded. This would be a morning I shall never forget, I can finally tick Nacreous Clouds off my photography list and being an optimist I do hope to be seeing them again in the near future. This turned out to be a great weekend of sky action, on Friday my Dad and I purchased a Dji Phantom 3 Advanced drone for aerial photography, on Saturday we went snow chasing and got treated to a dozen rare snow devils on the Sperrins, one of which even impacted me and went over the car, then on Monday we were amazed by massive waves at the coast from stormy Henry then everything climaxed on Tuesday morning with these extremely rare Nacreous Clouds. 2016 is going to be an interesting year indeed.

The morning of Feb 3rd was also forecast to be clear so I decided I would get up early just in case there was one final chance of seeing more Nacreous clouds even though my instincts told me there wouldn't. My alarm went off at 6am to clear skies and by 6.30am I was on my way up Glenshane Pass where I sat at the roadside watching the predawn sky. There was no sign of any Nacreous clouds at all although the waning crescent moon and planets made for a pleasing sight. It was such a bitterly cold morning with freezing temperatures and patchy snow on the ground and ice cold wind really was discouraging me from wanting to go outside the van. I drove onto higher ground via a back road where I could get more peace and solitude and watched some more. A nasty snow shower approached from behind, it passed over with menacing black clouds and large dark snow flakes falling like giant bumble bees from the sky, the scene was impressive so I opened the door and stepped out into the icy blast and got this hand held image with the 50mm F/1.8 lens. Once the shower cleared I had a good view of the E horizon and suddenly in the blink of an eye the northern crown of the rising sun abruptly appeared over the horizon from a tiny row of cloud and was followed by the best green flash I had ever seen in my life, I had seen it before through binos and telephoto lenses but to see it this vividly with no optical aid was quite an experience, it was like a large green pulsation or the wink of an emerald eye.

The sunrise moments later was beautiful, this was captured just a few minutes after the green flash using the 100-400mm lens. The crisp disk rising upward into a bed of orange sky glow was breathtaking.

It was soon accompanied by fanning crepuscular rays, the warm colours helped me mentally block out the cold wind chill. I then thought what a great time to do my maiden flight of the Phantom 3 Advanced drone, I had brought it with me this morning just in case I got a chance and now seemed the perfect time all isolated on the mountain with a beautiful sunrise unfolding. I had it set up and did my calibration dance and soon the drone was airborne.

The experience was exhilarating, these were not ideal flying conditions with the cold and wind which buffeted the craft however the 3 axis gimble countered every movement and kept the camera level at all times which was amazing. The ceiling was 100ft in beginners mode however when this mode is deactivated the Phantom can travel 2.2km from the controller. I tried a few turns, spins, moved the camera up and down, I could see what the camera was seeing via my tablet connected to the handset then after 10 minutes of flying I brought the drone down then let it auto land onto the hard icy ground with a bump. I reckon I could well be addicted now, the maiden flight was a combination of anxiety and excitement, I felt alive with the joy it brought and how it challenged my coordination, I could also sense the amazing potential it has for certain sky events and landscapes in the perfect light so until that time comes I will be doing more training sessions to get the hang of the craft.

Raw video footage of Nacreous clouds before sunrise and after sunrise filmed from Cookstown then from the Castledawson bus stop. Video does not do these clouds justice as far as the colours go, you really needed to be there, but I hope you enjoy the footage regardless due to their extreme rarity.

Video footage of the maiden flight of the Phantom 3 Advanced at sunrise from Glenshane Pass on the morning of Feb 3rd. When the drone is high check out the sky along the horizon to the left of the sun, I believe the long strips/bands of cloud to be PSC related only without the Naceous colours, I wonder if I will ever see them again?. Make sure to watch all the videos at 1080p for the finest quality. Thanks very much for reading.


Martin McKenna

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