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Storm Chasing, Peace Camp & Downhill Estate Starscapes - July 2012

June 2012 was the wettest month for 160 years in N. Ireland and July wasn't much of an improvement, the rainfall was less than the previous month however the cloud cover was horrendous which resulted in almost three and a half weeks of cloudy nights for me which meant I missed NLCs and major aurora displays and to make matters worse there was no interesting weather to shoot thanks to slow moving warm fronts. It was a miserable time for photography with pretty much nothing on offer from the sky making this the worst Summer of sky action I have ever seen. However, much to my delight there looked to be a break on July 11th which offered an unstable post-frontal air mass with 600 CAPE and very cold air moving in to enhance lapse rates which in conjunction with a trough and good solar heating meant there would be a risk of convective showers and thunderstorms during the afternoon. The only draw back was that there would be no wind shear or convergence so any storms would be non severe with no organisation however that didn't bother me, at least there was some convective weather to hunt. The optimistic side of me tried to ignore the synoptic limitations and concentrated on the positives which were the fact that this was a cold NWly flow which could mean photogenic convection with good clear air around the clouds for photography so a plan was set.

Roisin and I decided to go storm chasing however being so early in the morning with the radar giving away no clues as to where we should go I decided we should get out and find a base location and move from there, I figured since it was a NWly then regions further S would be best to give the cells a chance to develop as solar heating went to work and besides Roisin wanted to go shopping anyway so we decided to drive to Cookstown which became our base for the day. We would get the shopping sorted during the morning then be ready to chase during the early afternoon and that's exactly what we did. I'm pretty sure some of the passing shoppers outside Tesco and the clothes shops thought I was either suspicious or collecting money as I kept leaving the shops to stand outside to monitor the sky for convection and when inside I was walking around staring at the radar and sferics charts on Roisin's smart phone so my head was pretty much in the clouds all morning. The sky was certainly speaking though and I was quite surprised to see notable crisp towers and anvils forming so early in the day with very low level dark bases, in fact, the convection was more typical of what one might see here during the Winter time. My eyes squinted in the bright sunshine as I tried to glimpse the bases for funnels between the shops and I was soon becoming anxious to get out in the countryside for a better view and get chasing so Roisin and I had a quick coffee and snacks then hit the road.

Peace Camp & Downhill Estate

As soon as we cleared the buildings just outside Cookstown we saw quite an impressive cell out to the NW heading towards us with nicely structured precip curtains and dark storm clouds which looked quite menacing enough to deserve a deviation from our route and get images. The main road to the N of Cookstown was too busy to pull over so I had to drive for a bit avoiding the temptation to look away from the road so Roisin kept me informed on its visual progress for me. I found a side road to the W and took it, we ended up driving deep into the countryside surrounded by tall hedges and trees where we lost visibility, the road was so narrow it could only support one car at a time which was not good so the pressure was on to get a shot of this cell before it passed rite over the top of us. I spotted a break in the trees so pulled over onto deep muddy tractor tracks at the side of the road with half the wheels there and the other half on the road itself, I just had to hope no one would want to pass while we where here. I got out and jogged down the road to the clearance and got this shot of the leading edge of the cell as it approached, moving R to L and towards me, it looked like a storm about to rumble at any moment and already the rain drops were starting to splash on my lens. Those dark clouds mark a gust front/outflow feature and looked very dark visually which made for a nice scene over the lush fields. Heavy rain hit so I rushed back to the car as several massive tractors raced past the car with not much room to spare so we were glad to get off this crazy road and back onto the main where we could breath again.

Peace Camp & Downhill Estate

We punched through the core of the first cell which was very heavy indeed with small hail stones then entered a clearance with lovely sunshine as we drove miles to the S on our way in search of more cells. A period of heavy rain followed so we stopped at a garage and got refueled with more coffee and snacks and hit the road once more just as the rain cleared through and that's when we spotted a vast dark anvil with its back end facing us which was impressive enough to shoot so I quickly pulled over at the first available opportunity before the moment was lost. We turned into this small junction with the back end of the car pointing down another small country road at a strange angle and rolled down the window and started shooting, this was between Desertmartin and Cookstown. I really needed a 10mm lens for this as the anvil was so large extending very far above the frame. The image shows the rear end of the cell with flanking region and anvil moving R to L just as the sun broke out turning the foreground into a fantastic rich tapestry of green, the scene looked beautiful with the rich grass contrasting against the darker belly of the cell, this image doesn't do it justice at all.

Peace Camp & Downhill Estate

The scene was good enough to justify a hunt for better foreground so we turned around and drove back S again in the hope of catching the storm clouds over a couple of small rape seed fields we spotted on the way down which would make for a stunning image however it was soon apparent that the angle would not work and the cell would be too far away by the time we got there so we just pulled over once again at a random location which turned out to be the yard near my Aunt's business. The view from here on high ground was stunning with the anvil over these wonderful green undulating hills and fields so we stayed here for a while just enjoying the view. I believe this may have been the same cell which later produced a cluster of c-g lightning over Co. Armagh.

Peace Camp & Downhill Estate

The afternoon was used up chasing after convection over Glenshane Pass where rows of towers teased us with funnel cloud potential however the bases looked like they were struggling so we headed back to Maghera as the day was almost over, the unstable air was now moving to the SE and the trough had already passed. This was the last shot of the day looking NE outside town at chunky small towers with nice solid bases which required another funnel watch, there's something about this image I really like, I think its the busy sky which generates alot of depth to the image. We called it a day after this and despite not seeing any lightning or catching any funnels we still enjoyed it very much, it was a good day out and a fun chase with nice cloudscapes so I consider that a success, at least it broke the boring weather pattern which I was well and truly grateful for.

On July 15th a fast moving full halo CME hit Earth from a violent X-class solar flare which generated widespread aurora activity over mid northern latitudes so Roisin and I headed out again to catch the aurora. Amazingly it was the only clear night in over three weeks so we had to take advantage of it so we spent the night at Lough Fea under Summer stars however it felt more like Winter with a bitterly cold breeze blowing off the Lough which made for a very uncomfortable watch. With the exception of a network of lenticular clouds and nice meteor activity we saw no aurora action at all due to the brightness of the sky to the N which would have washed out any aurora activity to the eye, even the camera didn't pick up a trace so this was a major let down but not surprising considering the magnitude of the twilight at this time of year.

We did spot a faint NLC display however it was the most pathetic example I had ever seen which pretty much sums up my opinion on the entire NLC season this year because I was either clouded out for most of it and the displays I did see were poor, but yet again this was not a shock as increased solar activity was expected to have this effect on NLC frequency, that will all change at some point in the future so it will simply be a matter of waiting. The following night was completely clouded out with drizzle and guess what? - the best long-lived geomagnetic storm since the last solar maximum put on a remarkable display for a full 36 hours and we never saw a single second of it thanks to our Summer weather, it looked like those in the USA got the best show and had it been clear here I'm sure we would have seen something despite the twilight glow due to the aurora's brilliance and huge vertical pillars which would have been easy to catch on camera, alas there's nothing one can do in this situation other than be content in the knowledge that there will be bigger and better auroras to come this year and next!

Ballintoy Heron

July 19th at the Co. Antrim coast hiking for miles during the day, we where here for the Peace Camp display but had to wait to darkness so daylight hours where spent walking along the beautiful coastline. This big Heron looked cool standing among the rocks at Ballintoy questing for fish, this was taken with a 400mm lens and cropped slightly. We had never seen the sea so calm before and so low, this part of the coast is normally under water but now it was completely exposed to the point where I could walk over rocks to parts I would never have been able to set foot on before, it was a real joy to climb over massive boulders and outcrops of ancient basalt rock dating back 60 million years.

Peace Camp & Downhill Estate

This was later that same night at White Park Bay beach along the Antrim coast. This is Peace Camp, nothing to do with war and peace but more like peace of mind. This was a four day event across various parts of the UK from July 19th to the 22nd, I will quote the pamphlet I have in my hand here.

This unique installation was co-commissioned by the London 2012 Festival and Derry-Londonderry City of Culture as one of the flagship events in the huge cultural festival designed to celebrate the Olympic Paralympic Games. Peace Camp is a quiet and contemplative artwork taking place simultaneously in eight of the most beautiful and remote locations around the UK and will be open from 21.30 to 05.30 each night.

This event was taking place at two locations in N. Ireland - White Park Bay beach and Downhill Beach/Mussenden Temple so it was too tempting to ignore. I knew about this event months in advance through the internet and had it in mind as a potential photo opportunity and since sky events were currently lacking I decided this would be a good excuse to use the camera again. Peace Camp is simply a large number of tents lit from inside which play recordings of love poetry, gentle music, and sounds from nature complimented by the natural sound of the nearby ocean. This was the first night of its opening so Roisin and I decided to check out the White Park Bay event despite feeling exhausted and cold after many hours of hiking. I have to say it was very well organised and the fact that it was free and open to the public was even better so it wasn't surprising that alot of people turned up on and off all through the night. We had no problem navigating over the rugged terrain and beach in darkness as we were used to it however for others who didn't do this kind of thing alot there where plenty of staff at various locations with torches showing the way to go along with plenty of security which was encouraging to see. The above image was taken looking down on the encampment but it was a difficult scene to shoot, I was hoping for stars over the tents or even NLCs but it was cloudy again and the tents blew out even in a short exposure so you had to go for either one or the other unless you were stacking images. I like this image because it comes close to capturing the atmospheric moment with the orange tents contrasting against the dark blue all-night twilight sky which was similar to the naked eye.

Peace Camp & Downhill Estate

Down on the beach, the dark figure beside the tents must have been mediating as he was there for a long time, you can even see him in the previous image from up on the hill. It was calm and mild on the beach and quite surreal with these glowing orbs in the darkness with the ocean gently lapping against the sand beside us.

Peace Camp & Mussenden Temple

The next night, July 21st/22nd was forecast to be clear (utterly amazing after so much cloud) so Roisin and I decided we would go back again for another look because with stars in the sky there was a much better chance of getting decent images. We filled a flask and got some food prepared then began the drive to the coast just after sunset, the sky through the windscreen looked beautiful, clear as a bell with an eerie yellow glow on the horizon persisting like a volcanic sunset with a curved formation of dark cirrus clouds shaped like the back of some huge creature diving below the horizon. We arrived at dusk and due to the amount of cars heading to and from Peace Camp we decided to avoid the main car parks and just stay a little away from the location in a lay by and enjoy our refreshments then began the walk to Downhill Estate.

We loved the atmosphere here on this high ground overlooking the ocean with these two ancient buildings on view - Downhill Estate and Mussenden Temple - with the beautiful clear twilight blue sky with stars aloft. We walked in darkness across fields with regular groups of visitors seen as dark forms moving across the surreal landscape with the odd voice, occasional whispers and silent interludes, we were loving it. This is Mussenden Temple on a Summer's night, as you can see the sky is not dark enough here at this time of year for proper star images due to twilight staying all night long. Still it was nice to shoot the dark form of this 1785 Temple against the blue midnight sky with the orange interior visible at the entrance with a member of security on view. We went inside, this was the first time we had ever been inside the Temple and the fact that it was night time made the experience all the more memorable. The video clip at the bottom of the page shows the inside which was very warm and cosy with a huge domed ceiling above which was like being inside an astronomical observatory. A single orange glowing tent was at centre with harmonious music and poetry playing inside.

Peace Camp & Downhill Beach

This is a still from the video clip zoomed in showing the view outside the Temple looking below at Downhill Beach at the rest of the Peace Camp tents which looked quite spectacular on this dreamy night. Above where stars, below glowing tents, out NW was the lights from Donegal, to the N was the twilight sky, below that was the Atlantic Ocean illuminated blue by the bright heavens and behind us was the dark form of Mussenden Temple. We had planned to go down to the beach to get among all those tents but we never got that far once I got the camera set-up to shoot the stars over these old structures, from here on time seemed to stand still and the hours which followed are what really made the night for us.

Peace Camp & Downhill Estate

We spent the rest of the night shooting the Summer stars above Downhill Estate photographing every angle for a 180 degree arc from the N side around to the S side. This is the back of the building facing S towards the rising Milky Way with dust clouds and obscuration nebulae, in fact, above the horizon is Sagittarius which is facing into the heart of our Milky Way galaxy. A torch was used to bring up the walls as it was so dark on this side, many thanks to Roisin for doing all the light painting tonight, it can be tedious work and requires patience and repetition to get it rite not to mention standing around alot in the cool air for hours, Roisin done a great job as always. I have to say it felt wonderful standing in these dry hay fields which had just been freshly cut, the smell of Summer was intoxicating in a good way.

Peace Camp & Downhill Estate

No torch was used for the rest of these because the local lights helped bring up the stone work in the exposures. This is the E side of the complex later in the night, there where still people walking about in the distance but they were getting fewer and farther as time went on, we could see torch lights from the public and security in the distance but none of them ventured over this far. Milky Way running down the L of centre with Sagittarius, Scutum and southern Aquila with Ophiuchus and Serpens Cauda to the centre and R. A faint Nova had just recently been discovered in Sagittarius and was announced the following day via an AAVSO email alert.

Peace Camp & Downhill Estate

Now on the E side facing W with Serpens Caput, Corona Borealis, and Bootes above the ruins. There was no sign of anyone about at this time so it felt like it was just us here. You have to be careful on this side of the Estate as there is a deep mote surrounding this sector of the complex, you can see it as a dark line crossing through the bottom of this image which is very dangerous so if you are in this region at night make sure you are well dark adapted and checking where you walk and have a torch to hand otherwise a sudden fall into that mote could cause serious injury.

Peace Camp & Downhill Estate

Just before dawn with sky brightening rapidly as semi-darkness gave way to advancing morning twilight. This is facing N with Ursa Major above accompanied by Canes Venatici. No torch was used for these images, the orange glow is from distant town lights - light pollution - which casts its warm colour on the ruins and on the cloud bases while the green glow came from the bright light-alls used by the security which came up green on the exposure. Normally those lights are never there so this was a rare chance to get this building illuminated by another source.

Peace Camp & Downhill Estate

Final image from the night, just a shame there wasn't a large NLC display as I'm sure some dramatic images could be taken from this great location. Now it was dead silent, calm, and cold with dew on the grass and mist forming in banks over the fields so we decided to call it a night. Just as we where leaving we saw families arriving at 02.30 in the morning to begin their exploration of this site and Peace Camp which was great to see.

Short video clip showing the inside of Mussenden Temple at night and zooming down onto the Peace Camp tents on Downhill Beach. Looking back on it I should have taken more footage and went down to the beach however we were content enough spending such a beautiful starry night among these famous landmarks - what a great way to spend a Summer's night!. Thanks very much for reading.


Martin McKenna

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