I had been waiting patiently for a decent aurora set-up for a long time over the Winter period and after months of watching forecasts and charts it became clear that this was going to be a quiet aurora season indeed. I kept monitoring the situation patiently and noticed the sunspot numbers slowly increasing as they developed more unstable magnetic fields and soon a flurry of geomagnetic forecasts were issued by NOAA during the waxing moon phase of late February, these watches covered glancing blows and solar wind stream encounters which could generate some kind of aurora activity however I was not buying into the alerts. I studied the angle of the active regions in relation to the Sun-Earth line in conjunction with the various models and came to the conclusion that the CMEs would either miss Earth or be so weak in nature that strong auroras were unlikely. My instincts had been correct, the first CME missed completely and the second was so weak it barely registered on the stack plots, it was more like a stealth bomber, the outer edge of the CME's tenuous plasma cloud skimmed past with barely a quiver from our magnetosphere, the bomber had been - if you will excuse the expression - firing blanks. As it turned out the solar wind stream impact which followed was more impressive which produced several nights of aurora activity for those along coastal areas, this activity was aided a great deal by a southerly tilt to the IMF/Bz component. These auroras were nothing spectacular, I watched the activity on the charts and almost talked myself into going however twice I used my brain instead of my heart and made myself stay indoors for these auroras would not justify the diesel expense and besides they were not the prey which I was after, I was waiting patiently in the celestial long grass waiting for a more worthy prey to come into range so I watched and waited.
My patience and resilience to jump at every set-up had paid off for a new active region designated 2299 rotated around the eastern limb of the sun and quickly grabbed the attention of solar scientists the world over. This sunspot was already producing regular CMEs and flares on the far side and there was no reason to think it would stop any time soon. Once 2299 began to rotate westward during the course of its daily travels it began to unleash a series of M-Class flares and it was from here on that the excitement began and the emotional roller coaster raced upward at high speed. Geomagnetic alerts were issued back to back for the CMEs associated with the M-class flares however they turned out to be damp squibs for the clouds missed Earth completely yet again, this was another case of premature forecasting from several sources, I had questioned the forecast and wondered how such a warning could be released to the public when SOHO imagery - to me anyway - seemed to show the greater bulk missing Earth, however I assumed they knew something I didn't. My instincts turned out to be bang on yet again so I decided from then on that I would believe my own forecasts rather than those of other sources - this is not meant to sound big headed or the ego talking in any form - but simply an experience to underscore doing your own research and forecasting, that way you can only blame yourself if it doesn't work out and believe me this is much better than blaming others for you will learn a great deal more from the experience for the next event.
AR2299 had so far let us down and my emotions were on a knife edge, the active region was approaching the solar meridian (just to the E) and was in prime geoeffective position to affect Earth, then the adrenaline soared when a violent X-class flare was observed from this very same spot, talk about perfect timing, this was the event I had been waiting for and I tried my best to suppress my building excitement, I felt I could not let myself get worked up too much by this because in the past X-class flare events had been big let downs however the smaller flares always produced the better action, forecasts were released to the world and everyone on social media sites were getting hyped up by the epic aurora potential which was due on the nights ahead. NOAA and other sources issued strong forecasts then suddenly the SOHO spacecraft moved into a position in its monthly orbit which left everyone on Earth blind. The latest imagery from the C2 and C3 coronagraphs were delayed for several days so everyone just assumed that a massive CME was heading straight for us, it would impact in the next two to three nights at most. The charts remained quiet during this build up and I began to get a bad feeling then on the morning of impact the latest SOHO data finally arrived, oh dear, the X-class flare didn't even produce a CME at all - nothing, some spaceweather sites even updated their forecasts three times on the same day contradicting themselves in the process, first the CME missed, then the CME might deliver a glancing blow and finally there was no CME, so it seems even the top solar scientists were just as thrown off by this one as much as those within the amateur community, so much for the big X-class flare, at this stage I was begining to wonder if I would see one decent aurora display during this entire season.
AR2299 had thrown us a sucker punch however hours later the same sunspot followed it up with a mighty right hook in the form of several M-class flares and this time SOHO was in top form and clearly showed several large healthy CMEs leaving the sun at a fast pace heading directly for Earth and I immediately had a very good feeling about this one. Based on the models and C3 data I felt certain that at least one of these CMEs was going to do it for us and mentally I began to get ready. NOAA had issued a G1 geomagnetic storm watch due to the impact of several CMEs during the same period followed by a high speed solar wind stream impact and soon the internet was a blaze with headlines of green skies for St. Patrick's night so the hype for this one was big. The alerts actually showed the impact of the CME for late on March 17th or early hours of the 18th and it wasn't long before I was getting many emails to my website and through facebook and twitter asking ''what time will the aurora appear?'', ''what's the best place?'' and even some who wanted to accompany me on the hunt. I tried my best to answer all these questions however at one stage I felt quite overwhelmed and for those who wanted to join me I have to say I felt very privileged and honored to be asked so thanks to those who did (you know who you are), however I'm not keen on crowds and prefer to be either on my own or with one or two people I'm comfortable with because I want to enjoy the experience and can't have any distractions so I can concentrate on my photography.
I woke up on St. Patrick's day morning and got a shock when I checked my lap top while still laying in bed. The CME had hit much earlier than expected and the aurora was happening during daylight hours and it was a major geomagnetic storm!!!!, during the hours which followed the storm became classified as a G4 geomagnetic storm and the KP peaked at 8 (in fact, slightly more than 8 and at one stage it almost reached 9 for a brief moment!!!), this scale runs from 0 to 9 so this storm was an extremely rare and exceptional event, however would the activity last until nightfall?, most of the time these storms fade rapidly so the chances were small however the activity remained steady for hours and I began to sense that this one was going to last, the oval was blood red all around which sent my adrenaline through the roof, I simply couldn't wait until darkness and there was still another 6 hours to go. I immediately contacted good friend and photographer Paul Martin and we decided quickly that we would meet and shoot this storm together, Paul said he would also be bringing his girlfriend Tracy along with him because she had always wanted to see an aurora, well there was no better chance than now.
The big question was where would we shoot?, in complete honesty we wanted to completely avoid the Co. Antrim coast for a number of reasons, the first being that absolutely everyone was going there, we had been to the previous two public aurora watches and we never liked them, there were too many people there with no understanding of the aurora who lit up the ocean, sky and foreground with torches and car headlight beams destroying any chance of aurora photography at all, I wasn't in the mood for this kind of behavior tonight at all so our hearts were in search for an inland location, however the problem was the weather. Ireland was under the influence of my worst kind of weather in the form of high pressure anti-cyclonic gloom which brought cold days with mist and cloud and nights of terrible mist, fog and low level cloud. The same was forecast tonight although clear skies were expected but I knew that once darkness arrived the majority of inland locations would get destroyed by poor transparency from mist and air frost, furthermore light pollution would reflect off the high moisture content destroying the sky even more. I spent hours studying the models and sat images and decided that the only place within a decent range with a better chance of clear spells and transparency was the Co. Antrim coast. The reasoning was that sat imagery showed clear sectors in that area for hours in addition to the fact that we could get away from the slack air profiles inland, I hoped that a local sea breeze would clear some of the haze and give us a fighting chance.
Paul and Tracy arrived at my house at 18.00, it was still daytime however we wanted to get on location early and get set-up for the aurora which should be visible immediately upon nightfall, the KP was still 8 and the Bz was -27 so everything was utter perfection, it was just a matter of getting clear skies now. Paul and Tracy were in Paul's 4x4 and I was in the Berlingo and together we headed N, we stopped at the filling station in Garvagh for snacks and coffee then continued on, to my W out the window I could see the orange-red disk of the sun comfortably with the naked eye as it sank into a layer of thick horizon haze, it looked nice however that haze was getting me concerned and as we drove through Portrush I could see it lingering around street lights overhead. We reached Ballintoy Harbour after sunset and kept our eyes on the sky as the light gradually faded, it was quite clear and much better than we had hoped for, we chatted with Brian Fullerton for a while as Venus and Jupiter appeared high in the dusk sky then soon the brighter stars at the zenith were on view. The car park was quickly getting busy with new aurora seekers arriving by the minute so we decided to get away from the crowd and get to our location fast, I was certain that the sky already looked suspicious and even though it was far from dark I could have swore the sky had a green hue to it towards the N. We decided on an old favourite location around the W side of Ballintoy where the coastline meets White Park Bay beach so all three of us grabbed our gear and began the careful hike around this section of coastline across narrow trails of rock, flowing water, mud, over fences and even a tiny river, the twilight was advanced but our environment was dark so we had to use our head torches to see where we were going, I was carrying my heavy camera bag and tripod while carrying a large hiking bag, inside of which was my Go Pro, another tripod for the Go Pro, flasks of hot water and food, the straps of the backpack were eating into my neck and shoulder muscles so we stopped for a quick break to catch our breath. Suddenly Paul yelled ''beams!!'', he could see tall beams even in the twilight sky, to be certain he used his Canon 6D to take a high ISO hand held image which confirmed what he could see with this own eyes, the aurora was here rite now, as my eyes adjusted I saw them too and from then on the night went into high gear, I shouted ''holy s**t'' I can see them, they're massive!'', from that moment on I rushed across the coastline at a faster pace then the three of us arrived at our chosen destination.
With a trembling hand I attached the Canon 600D to the tripod with my new Samyang 10mm F/2.8 lens, got focused, and took my first exposure. This was the scene on camera, twilight was now merging into darkness unveiling a major aurora display, it felt as if a curtain had been drawn open. With the naked eye I could see huge thick rays of light extending to the height of Polaris and I could perceive a subtle purple colour while the camera picked up reds and greens. I was immediately struck by the height of the display and how I struggled to compose the scene because I couldn't fit the rays into the huge FOV of this lens, when this was happening those purple rays extended above the frame by at least another 10-15 degrees. We all yelled with delight and took as many exposures as we could while taking in as much visual information as possible. These rays lasted for approximately 15 min's then faded from view just as full darkness settled in for the night, we must have witnessed a brief outburst so talk about good timing for had we been delayed at the car park for another 15 min's we would have missed this completely, or at least wouldn't have it made it to our location on time.
Even though the ray system of the aurora had waned the main part of the aurora was still visible and remained so for hours in the form of a diffuse green band/arc across the N to NW sky varying between 20 and 40 degrees high, the band was clearly visible with the naked eye and the green colour was quite intense at times while periodically morphing between a single and double tier profile and occasionally faint beams would appear and vanish like candle flames among the stars, some of these rays were green and others a pinkish red colour and seemed most prevalent to the N and E of N. We knew from experience to never let our guard down for the aurora often experiences strong mood swings and when it takes a tantrum it often does so in spectacular fashion, these tantrums are what we call outbursts, these are often triggered by a sudden dip in the Bz or by a fresh kick to the magnetosphere either from a new CME or solar wind stream encounter or from the magnetic field recoiling after the initial bow shock wave impact from the first CME, we felt strongly that another outburst was imminent so we stayed sharp. Paul and Tracy used this downtime to move to another position, perhaps 20-30m away to my right and a little closer to the sea, I watched their shadowy forms vanish into the darkness and at times their black shapes blended in with the black rocks, I could only tell where they were when a head torch was briefly switched on. I wanted to get close to the sea to get better foreground however once I began climbing over the rocks I realised I was in danger because the rocks were extremely slippery with sea salt and sea weed mixed with crevices filled with deep water, it felt like walking on black ice and I slid several times, I knew if I kept going I would break an ankle or leg, or even worse - I could break my camera - so I retreated back to my original position.
The aurora was like a caged Lion waiting to get unlocked so in the meantime I set up my new Go Pro Hero 4 Silver camera on a tripod on the rocks with the intention of taking my first night lapse in the hope of catching the aurora on time lapse. Well it took me ages to figure out the correct settings in the darkness, nothing seemed to work, it would take a 30 sec exposure at ISO800 but only one, I felt frustrated and my ankles were killing me from kneeling down on the hard rocks. After what seemed like a solid hour of attempts I finally found the correct combination of menu settings and with a sigh of relief I pointed it to the N and NW at super wide mode and let it take its own images on continuous shooting mode. Meanwhile I found a giant boulder about twice my height and climbed up top which gave me a terrific view across the ocean so I set up the 600D at 10mm and began a star trail, I have always wanted to try a star trail with aurora and now I was finally getting that chance, I could also use the still images later for a short time lapse. This was absolute heaven, the place was cloaked in complete darkness, I was glad we had made the effort to hike here for the place was quiet and peaceful away from the crowd with a strong connection with nature. The tide was out and the ocean was flat and calm and gently lapped at the rocks below me, the air was pure and fresh and the night sublime so I just watched the aurora visually while the camera took continuous 30 sec exposures. The above image is one of the three star trails I took from the top of this rock, Polaris is at the top and all the greens and reds are from the aurora.
All was quiet, if felt like a living dream however the cold air reminded me it was reality so I gently bounced on the spot to keep warm then went back to my kit bag and made myself a mug of hot noodle soup which warmed me up followed by nuts and chocolate for energy. Just as I was returning to the big rock I heard Paul shouting from within the darkness ''wow'', it was after 23.00 and the aurora had come to life in an instant experiencing a major outburst and within min's we were witnessing a terrific light show. I quickly glanced back at the Go Pro, the battery had died just before the new outbreak, my focus now was on still imagery so I jumped through the darkness back onto my high rock and began taking frantic exposures. I don't know how long this outburst lasted, perhaps 15-20 min's, however time seemed different to me and it felt like I was wrapped up in its light for an hour, probably because I was intensely busy observing and taking images. This became the best aurora of the current solar cycle and without question the best aurora structure since the extreme storms of 2002-2003. To me the aurora looked like an invisible hand with paint brush painting the sky with majestic strokes, the beams/rays seemed to cut clean through the dense haze and mist like a knife through butter and the sea itself glowed eerie green, I couldn't get over the height of those rays, they extended so far above the 10mm frame that I felt like I was using a 50mm lens instead, I actually felt suffocated because I couldn't get wide enough to take it all in, I tried tilting the camera as high as I could with as little foreground as possible however it was of no use, no matter what I tried I couldn't even come close to doing this display justice. The beams extended far above Polaris and across the zenith (overhead), these beams extended across 120 degrees of azimuth from W to NE and were so tall they began to converge overhead, with the naked eye I could see green and subtle pink and red colours punctuated by purple swathes vertically sweeping upward through the green and pink rays, it was like watching a Poltergeist on steroids as the invisible painter went manic.
I felt an impact of emotions ranging from exhilaration, joy, happiness and awe to panic and anxiety as I rushed to take images in different sky sectors not knowing where to point the camera next. One moment I was exposing straight ahead then it would go crazy to my half right so I panned there for an exposure then it would go nuts to my far left and I would follow suit or at times all three areas went insane leaving me frozen and numb while all the time those huge pillars were shooting over my head, if it's possible to get ambushed by an aurora then this was what it must be like. I felt like I was continuously spinning on this high rock 360 degrees in different directions trying to expose whatever portion of sky looked most dramatic. I liked the view straight in front of me across the calm sea with the 60 million year old Jurassic rocks on view with this incredible light show aloft.
The aurora was changing by the second and was clearly dominated by intricate networks of rays, I dislike the term 'ray' on this particular night because they looked more like search beams or spot lights during WW2. You can see Paul's NLC screen among the dark rocks to the far right, Paul and I did quite a bit of yelling at this point across the shore to one another for we simply couldn't contain ourselves. A display of this magnitude builds up so many emotions inside that you simply have to let them out in some verbal or physical manner. Some people jump or dance, we tend to shout, I recall holding my fist in the air shouting ''yeeaaaaggggggghhh', like Arnie during the end scene in Predator. Shouts of amazement would break the silence and plenty of cursing too, we were in our element and loving every second of it.
The storm intensified even further much to our disbelief, I panned the camera to the left facing NW towards Donegal, the searchlight beams were in full war mode exhibiting strong pink, red, and green colours. The vertical high speed motions were incredible, the beams were shooting upward in a fashion which felt like a visual demonstration of the real physical processes at work, it felt like I was witnessing these high speed energetic electrons streaming down from above and getting funnelled through the twisting magnetic field lines of the Earth, glowing and manifesting as the aurora before my very eyes, there were also bizarre movements going on behind me and above like flashes and unearthly forms like Finn McCool waving a torch.
This is getting into the rare category, facing south and at the zenith high above Polaris at 10mm, look at those rays fanning upward filling the frame, I knew we were going to get a corona at any moment. The aurora was so bright it actually made the haze and mist glow in a ghostly white veil which made photography more difficult however it was amazing to think that the aurora was illuminating it from above, nature truly is incredible.
This is an extremely rare corona overhead at 10mm with Ursa Major at centre, Coma Berenices below centre and with Leo and planet Jupiter to the right, this is looking south also. A corona is a trick of perspective much like looking down a railway track, near the horizon the tracks appear to converge or meet, much the same is happening here, the rays are converging and forming this elusive form in the sky, it takes the appearance of an irregular patch with rays on either side and can sport a wide range of colours although pinks and reds are most common. This corona was flaming and pulsating and remained visible for at least 10 min's, this is also the first proper corona I have seen since 2002-2003 and the first one I have captured on camera because back in the day the best auroras I have seen where all visual with no digital cameras around so this trophy shot really made the night special for me. The outburst suddenly ended and the aurora waned back to a subtle green glow across the horizon, if anyone had missed this spectacle then they may have to wait a long time to witness another of this caliber, Paul, Tracy and I walked back across the coastline buzzing with excitement and chatting about the finer points of the display, Ballintoy harbour itself was full of people, cars and lights so we got in the vehicles and went in hunt of a new location.
We decided to check out the Giant's Causeway at 01.30 thinking the place might be quiet at this hour of the night however we met four or five other cars there with observers and photographers watching the sky, after chatting for a while we noticed faint rays appearing again and sensing that another outburst was on the verge of happening Paul and I worked our way across the ancient basalt rocks, we couldn't shoot the famous pyramid rock formation as several other photographers were doing so and we didn't want to get in their frame so we carefully navigated across the east side of the rocks adjacent to the sea and found a nice spot at the very back of those famous rocks so I set up the camera and tripod just as the outburst began at 02.00. Although this was nothing in comparison to the previous show and considerably smaller in height it was still a lovely sight and in some ways better because the rays were very intense with extremely sharp edges, Paul was in the darkness behind me perhaps five metres away doing his own thing and I have to say this was a very nice moment watching those rays dance with grace across the stars and over the ocean from this legendary 60 million year old coastline.
I did another star trail and as the camera took continuous stills I sat back on my camera bag against the black volcanic rocks and simply watched in absolute silence as the aurora put on a beautiful display for us, this really was a nice moment which I enjoyed very much. We called it a night after this and began the drive home through mist and fog, I made it back for 04.00 however Paul and Tracy would not be home until at least 05.00 with an early rise in the morning, however it was worth it, what a night and what a 'first' aurora for Tracy to experience. For me it was aurora number 127, I will always associate that number with green skies on St. Patrick's night.
There was a continued chance of further aurora activity the following night with G1 storming likely in the wake of the CME and even though I didn't feel there would be much happening I decided I would go anyway despite the lack of sleep from the night before. My Mum had never seen the aurora before so I thought this would be a good time to change that so we headed straight to the coast and this time back to the Giant's Causeway. There was a very faint aurora showing on camera however while I waited I began a star trail around the van but it was cut short (three times) by other cars and people with lights, I chatted with a few people and enjoyed watching the sky visually, there were even a few beams on show however I didn't do any more photography because of people walking over the rocks with torches, I was relieved a major aurora wasn't happening for the images would have been ruined by such behavior, next time if the skies are clear I hope to be shooting a display inland or at a new location for this reason.
My first aurora time lapse video taken with the Go Pro then with the Canon 600D at 10mm, the images with the Canon were the same stills used for the star trails which I then batch edited using Lightroom 3.5 and adjusted the speed using Windows Movie maker. The musical score is entirely original and was composed for me by Belfast musician and songwriter Joseph McNally, I love the music and think it really accentuates the magic of this unforgettable night. Thanks very much for reading.