Severe G5 Geomagnetic Storm With Corona Over Beaghmore Fairy Tree - May 10th 2024

On April 26th I was standing in a field along the back roads of Beaghmore in Co. Tyrone with my camera shooting a time lapse of a faint aurora over what Roisin and I call 'The Fairy Tree'. The geomagnetic disturbance was weak and I don't even think G1 levels were reached, however I gave it all I got and finally at 01.00 in the morning a formation of faint pastel grey transparent pillars erupted from the northern sky. The wait was worth it and despite being only a weak aurora I was pleased to have captured that 15 min outburst of ghostly beams over the tree. I thought to myself that night that I would love to capture a proper aurora with that tree, I loved the simplicity of the scene and the single subject in the frame, the flat horizon and vast skies, it was just perfect for a proper aurora, I reckoned even a G2 would do the job, however it would likely be a long wait before I got that chance.

It's already May, the nights are getting much shorter, in fact, there are only a few hours of semi darkness with the remaining night being lingering twilight so time was running out and soon we would loose our dark skies entirely until August. There was another reason why I wanted a decent display, I had been approached by a television company who wanted to do a segment on the aurora in the Mid-Ulster area which would be aired on tv next year, I can't say much more about it until then however the pressure was on to catch an aurora during Spring before the season ended. Any faint aurora wouldn't do, I wanted a strong aurora for the show, after all, if this was about the northern lights in Northern Ireland then I wanted it to be of a very high standard to show the public exactly how amazing the sky can be.

Suddenly everything changed extremely fast. A new active region designated AR3664 had appeared on the solar disk and within a few days it had grown into a monster sunspot, the largest since the last solar maximum, in fact, so big it was comparable in size to the sunspot group which caused the Carrington Event. I observed this fascinating group through the telescope and I was astonished at its size and complexity sporting countless umbra and penumbral textures, it could have swallowed Earth 15 times over. At a casual glance I counted between 80 and 90 spots/pores within that single group. However it was not just a looker, it was a doer, numerous solar flares erupted on a daily bases and a bounty of X-class events followed by a barrage of fast moving CMEs. Since the group was west of the solar meridian all those CMEs would be geoeffective, in fact, every single one of them would hit Earth around the same time, to make things more exciting a very fast cannibal CME was launched which would overtake the others causing strong storming and this would be followed soon after by the other CMEs, there were at least 6 CMEs inbound and some models suggested they could combine to generate a significant event.

NOAA had issued a severe geomagnetic storm watch, the first such watch in at least 19 years with G4 storming anticipated (KP8). This was extremely exciting and would be our best prospect of aurora in many years. However in these situations I try to control my excitement and adopt a cautiously optimistic mind set as other factors needed to be addressed, such as timing. Since we only had a few hours of darkness with a usable window from 23.30 to 03.30 at best we need the CME to hit within that time frame, NOAA forecasted an impact late on Friday May 10th into the early hours of Saturday May 11th, and would it be clear?. As great fortune would have it we were experiencing our best spell of weather of the year with high pressure in charge and sunny warm days, furthermore all sources were going for clear skies on Friday night but cloudy for the rest of the weekend so Friday night had to work out.

NOAA models suggested an impact between midnight and 07.00 on the morning of Saturday May 11th, this had me slightly concerned for if it hit during the early hours it would be too late for us and the USA would get the show, even if it hit at midnight we still needed time for the storm to brew so this would be cutting it close, these concerns often lead to anxiety and a great sense of anticipation, emotions can get highly magnified when G4 conditions are expected. During Friday daytime I couldn't help feeling that something great was going to happen, I had that familiar gut feeling, I could think of nothing else but the aurora potential. I charged all my gear, DSLRs and drone, cleaned the sensors and lenses, set them all to night mode and made sure the tripods and ball heads were secure. On facebook chat we talked endlessly about what was going to happen which just added to the build-up, I recalled saying ''imagine the CME hit early, then timing would be absolutely perfect'', everyone agreed.

Meanwhile the television crew had also heard about the aurora potential which was all over social media and news sources, they wanted to hook up, I had planned on aurora hunting anyway so we decided we would give it a go, this was happening, the universe was conspiring to make this happen and it was all up to nature now. Even though I was excited by this adventure the charts were still dead and we had no idea when the CME would arrive, was this night going to work out?

A few hours later social media came alive, space craft sensors had picked up a sharp rise in protons indicating the approaching CME, then it hit the ACE and DSCOVR spacecrafts with wind speeds of over 800km/sec and a Bz of -40!, soon after the Bz was recorded at -80, this was major geomagnetic storm, then at 18.00 it hit Earth much earlier than forecast! I was delighted by this news, my hunch had been correct, however it was daytime in N. Ireland and we still had another 5 and a half hours until darkness at least. Would the storm still be strong enough by then and would the Bz stay south?. At this moment in time I knew we were in combat mode, my adrenaline started to surge, I packed the gear into the car and ate dinner but my appetite wasn't good due to the building excitement. It was entirely up to nature now, I took comfort in the fact that more CMEs could soon be hitting in the storm's wake ramping activity again, in theory this could go on for hours and that was exactly what I needed.

My target area was, you guessed it, the fairy tree near Beaghmore, this was my chance to get the scene I wanted, when the film crew heard about this decision they were delighted as they loved the location. I drove out the Cookstown-Omagh road on a gorgeous sunny warm evening, then at 20.30 I met the film crew at Beaghmore. I also met aurora chaser Colleen Webb from Portglenone who wanted to join me at the tree so the four of us met then made our way to the fairy tree to make the most of what little daylight we had left. We recorded audio conversations about the location and the aurora itself and my passion for the sky then filmed B-roll of me walking through the field towards the tree. I have to say the team were greet, so expert in their field (excuse the pun) and yet easy going, the experience was completely unobtrusive and aside form a few scenes they needed they pretty much let me get on with what I wanted to do and documented the hunt as it evolved.

The sun had set and in the gathering dusk a beautiful waxing crescent moon was well placed in the NW, I said to the crew that if we are really lucky we might get auroral beams over that slender moon later which could be a great photo opportunity. Even though this could be my 184th aurora from N. Ireland the crew had never seen the aurora before, so I was hoping that this would be the night of nights to make the occasion all the more magical. I flew the drone around the tree to document the dusk sky and as I did I wondered what was going on above, my thoughts were answered when Colleen checked her phone, the Bz was -40 and spectacular images were appearing from countries to the east, it was at this moment that I knew we were in business. I said the aurora was happening rite now but the sky is just too bright to see it yet, but once the twilight darkens we might observe beams so be on alert.

I knew this was going to be a busy night so I sat in the grass and had a flask of tea and a few snacks as we all gathered around bathed in the light of blue hour. We saw a Buzzard flying around and heard a few Cows baying from nearby fields which accentuated the country experience, the evening was atmospheric and moody and in the distance was the dark form of the Sperrins against the skyline. I looked up and saw Capella, took another sip of tea which was being filmed as part of the story when suddenly we all heard an excited yell from Colleen. She was screaming ''look to the east, look to the east OMG'', I turned my head skyward, thinking east?, surely she meant north?, then I saw it.

The night wasn't even dark yet but glowing in the sky was a vivid phenomena in the east, it looked like cirrus clouds blowing along a super fast jet stream while glowing with electrons as if they were highly charged. As my eyes adjusted I could see streamers of fine structure embedded within that yellow-green mass, the storm was here! I quickly grabbed the camera, focused frantically, turned it to the east and began taking exposures. I think I said ''holy sh**'' in shock, I had observed epic auroras before but I didn't recall structure like this, to me it looked like a huge feathered wing. This image shows the structure against the twilight with the stars of the Milky Way rising. I turned around, the northern sky was clear, no aurora there at all, it was in the east!

I glanced behind to the west and could see the aurora in the opposite sky sector, this feathered form was stretching from W to E across the entire sky. I shifted across the dark grass and set-up the camera for a new composition with the fairy tree, after all, this was why I was here, I can tell you when I took this exposure I felt a tremendous sense of relief, I had the shot, the night was already a success, from now on anything else was going to be a bonus. I love this scene with the aurora, blue twilight, tree, moon and old friend Capella.

I was hoping we would see a corona tonight and instinctively I looked overhead to check and there it was, I couldn't believe it, and it was the best one I had seen since the last solar maximum. As I moved around the field the cameraman followed me recording footage, I also had a mic attached to my coat so my natural reactions were also being recorded. Camera pointing straight overhead at 15mm wide angle, the sky was becoming alive all around us, I didn't know where to look or what to shoot, the west looked awesome, the east was awesome and overhead had a rare corona, what to do? I wanted to get at least one decent time lapse of the aurora for the television show but I couldn't settle myself, so I decided to shoot stills first until I found my flow.

Camera facing west-northwest and in the darkening twilight the aurora was spectacular. The darkened sky revealed new structures and the aurora seemed to intensify in brilliance and since we were quite well dark adapted the colours became easily visible to our eyes. At this moment in time the Earth was literally being attacked from space, you could almost imagine the charged particles streaming along the magnetic field lines at 800 times the speed of a bullet. Huge rays and streamers dominated the sky washing out many of the stars and faintly illuminating the grass below. We could easily see pink colours with the naked eye and from somewhere in the darkness I could hear Colleen yelling and cursing with delight, she was loving it, this was the best aurora she had ever seen in her life.

Across the zenith the corona came alive and for me it stole the entire show. A corona is a structure created by perspective, when you have auroral rays that are so tall and numerous they appear to converge overhead creating this unique form. These are rare from N. Ireland and to have a chance of seeing a good one you need a strong geomagnetic storm which only happens a handful of times for a given location during each solar cycle, I had seen a few in recent years but they were faint and transient, lasting only minutes. The finest specimens where the great storms of 2000, 2002 and 2003, one in particular remains the most stupendous storm and corona I've ever seen in my life. However now as I looked up I was seeing a spectacular example, in fact, the best I had seen since those times, being so rare I made sure to get images as a priority, this was absolutely gorgeous.

Zenith to the east-south east sky sector, you can see the red lights from Sperrin View Glamping in the distance. All I could hear were excited reactions from the crew, from Colleen and from myself, some of those words are not suitable for repeating on here. We were all flabbergasted, the crew could easily see the pink and crimson colours, if you look carefully you can see a faint green glow to the right on the horizon, that's facing south, the aurora was on the southern horizon! I had seen auroras in the south before but not that low down, this was a first for me, the auroral oval must grown to a tremendous size, this was evidence that people living in southern latitudes would be seeing aurora too, a rare event indeed.

Camera facing overhead and pointing south east, I still couldn't settle, I was shooting everything, and for good reason, the sky was incredible everywhere, I had an instinct that I needed to choose one area soon to shoot a time lapse and deep down I knew it was going to be the corona, I just needed a few more images first.

Colleen yelled that the Bz was -50!!! and was now rated as a G5 geomagnetic storm, the top of the scale and the strongest solar storm in 20 years!!!, I almost trembled with nerves and awe as I panned the camera back to the west-north west, the sky was unbelievable. Epic aurora over the fairy tree, I had done it, if only I had known what was coming two weeks earlier when I had been standing in this very field looking at those faint beams. All these images are captured using a full frame Canon 5D Mark IV with 15mm F/2.8 wide angle lens at F/2.8. Exposure times varied between 1.3 and 1.6 second's at ISO6400.

To me this image was like a dream come true, I knew half the country would be out tonight watching with photographers everywhere, the usual locations would be jammed with people, I had heard the stone circles was packed. I'm not a fan of crowds, too many people and photographers tend to get in each others way and your images end up getting ruined and it can be difficult to get a time lapse due to lights and head torches. I like solitude and peace and the four of us had it here at this moment with the aurora and tree all to ourselves, it was perfection.

Southeast-east, beyond amazing, if someone shone a light on us they likely would have seen our jaws on the floor, when you see something this spectacular rite in front of you it tends to have a bizarre effect on your thinking. You can't articulate what you want to say or how to describe what you are seeing, your brain fogs over and only one or two words come out, usually accompanied by vernacular. Even now as I write this up thinking back to that moment I've almost froze again at the keyboard, to me this was heaven.

I needed a time lapse, then I recalled that one of my dreams as an astrophotographer was to acquire a time lapse of a proper corona, and tonight we had the best corona in two decades. This was the chance I had been waiting for, not only would I achieve my goal but I would also have video content for the tv show. I panned the camera back to the zenith and began shooting a time lapse, same settings as before, by taking short exposures I could freeze the auroral motion and at the same time get as many frames as possible. I left the camera alone then took in the sky with the eye, at this stage everyone was in a world of their own, it felt like being in a dream. Colleen was taking images and yelling and the crew were taking images on their phones and taking selfies sending pics to family and colleagues, everyone was locked into their own zone.

It was time to get the drone in the air, I had already captured four auroras over the last year with my DJI Mavic 3 Classic and I was really encouraged with how it captured the G3 storm last Autumn so I was determined to use it tonight, after all, how many drone pilots can they have images of a G5 aurora from their aerial camera, not many in UK/Ireland that's for sure, likely zero until this moment. Drone in the air, I let it hover at 83m altitude, a breeze had picked up stirring the grass and tree so I let the drone find GPS and settle then began taking test exposures at ISO800 for 5 sec's, when I previewed the results I was blown how well the Mavic 3 camera had done in low light and the colours straight out of the drone were vibrant. Facing east-southeast here.

West-southwest looking across the Sperrins towards Omagh. It seemed the sky was filled with every colour you can get with a severe aurora


Yells of delight still floated across the field from the darkness from everyone, to me it looked like a paint brush was being applied to the canvas of the sky by some celestial artist. Colleen had her drone in the air too and we were really amazed at the results, I would definitely like to try this again in the future with another major event, perhaps shoot an aerial night lapse. I was feeling 100% happy so I landed the drone then went back to check the DSLR.

I stopped shooting my time lapse of the corona and just hoped everything worked out, I always worry if I got enough frames to make a decent length sequence and if my focus was good, especially when setting up fast in the heat of the moment. Little did I know that this very time lapse would become the best astro lapse I've ever taken in my life. I began shooting more wide angle stills, every part of this aurora was extremely photogenic, I knew I was getting my personal best aurora images to date, this was going to be a night never to be forgotten.

This is looking directly south, not north, but south! the aurora is rite down to the horizon, this was the bottom portion of the corona radiating down from the sky, it was unbelievable. Visually this was the most remarkable experience of the storm, the corona and associated ray patterns looked like a living entity, I'm really trying to avoid saying this but it can't be helped, it was like a spiritual event, truly heavenly, it just looked like rays of celestial light fanning down from heaven or some kind of apparition was descending from another dimension. Even though I knew the science behind this event and understood this was a product of physics and chemistry I was still thrown by how it looked and felt emotional. I can only image how ancient observers would have interrupted such events.

Overhead corona at 15mm wide angle, all of us could see vibrant crimson colours which were unmistakable, we could also see blue and purple colours. The radiating pattern was shocking, to my comet-obsessed brain it looked like the inside of a comet's coma with radiating ion streamers and jets spiraling from the rotating nucleus of a huge comet about to hit the Earth.


This aurora was so vast it would end being captured from New Mexico

Coronal majesty at the zenith, we watched all kinds of wonderful forms appear within this constantly changing corona, at one stage I saw a large winged Dove complete with wings and feathers, or maybe it was a celestial Eagle. However the greatest scene of all was when I saw what I seriously can only describe as an Angel. A huge Angelic form complete with head, body, the classic wings with feathers shown in religious text books, and behind the Angel was a background of purple and pink light radiating outwards as if the Angel had descended from its heavenly throne.

I normally don't like to bring this kind of imagery into my astronomical reports but I can only call it as I see it, this was my immediate impression of what I was seeing. I was delighted to find out later that I wasn't the only one, there were others from Europe and the UK who also said they saw an Angel. Makes you wonder about the ancients before the time of science doesn't it when everyone looked to the skies for signs.



The structures were so large I had trouble framing scenes even with the 15mm wide angle which felt more like a 50mm on crop sensor compared to the vastness of the display. I had to really minimize foreground here to try and get the coronal spiral and rays with the tree.

Please watch the time lapse of this moment in the video below, the motion looks like some kind of time warp as if the viewer is traveling into the event horizon of a black hole.

Blue, purple, crimson, white and yellow-green were all easily visible to the naked eye.

I then moved across the field to get a composition with the fairy tree again, Colleen was beside me shooting too, we were both on a complete high verbally describing everything we were seeing. The view to the west-northwest was sublime, that area had been fairly blank for a time but now it was filling in with a spectacular formation of tall rays of purple, pink and green colours. In the small clear gap to the NW was the crescent moon surrounded by auroral beams, it made for a fantastic photo opportunity, I liked it so much I began shooting another time lapse.

The mood of the aurora changed over the next ten minutes, the structures were epic however the magnitude had dropped a little and the sky was reaching its darkest time of the night. The beams seemed to redden even more, a fiery sky over the tree with pinks and purples above the setting moon, it was like a sunset scene from Africa, only this was nearly midnight from N. Ireland. Our night with the film crew came to an end, we were all delighted how well this shoot turned out, a rare event for all of us which we will never forget. With a little luck you may see some of this time lapse footage and daytime B-roll of us setting up on the television next year. Now Colleen and I were on our own and the charts showed another big drop in Bz, the aurora was going to intensify yet again.

Even though we were already happy with everything we had captured it would be an injustice to go home now, we decided we would stay out a bit longer and this time try another location, Colleen suggested Broughderg and Lady of Wayside chapel which I thought was a splendid idea. I've never seen so many people driving along these back roads before between Beaghmore and Davagh, all aurora chasers, then some stranger randomly walked into the field and began shooting the fairy tree, our lights had been spotted and the word was out, it was time to go somewhere quiet.

After midnight we arrived at Lady of Wayside in Broughderg, a beautiful part of the countryside, very dark and isolated and a great place to enjoy the sky. They have a fantastic crucifixion scene looking due north and we always kept it mind for aurora in the future. The only issue was the scene is so tall you need a very strong aurora to show at all and tonight was the night. On location it was difficult though, it was pitch black and all we could do was flash the head torch on the statues to show them up. It wasn't the scene we wanted but as far as we know these are the first aurora images from this location. Check out the pink and purple beams mixing with patches of mid level altocumulus clouds, almost looks like the classic herringbone pattern one gets with NLCs. The upper left hand side of the image looks like a cross in the sky.

We then drove on and pulled over at a random spot on a country road in Broughderg. The Bz dived again and the aurora went into high gear once more, the entire sky was covered with the aurora 360 degrees and it was difficult to know where to look again. Colleen and I enjoying the moment here, I'm not sure but I'm wondering could that red area be a broad SARS phenomena? perhaps not, but it was very interesting, facing east.

The corona was back again and this time it had really interesting biological forms at centre, almost embryonic. Looking overhead with another time lapse going.

Aurora going crazy again, those pink colours were insane, massive pillars of light and colour were everywhere in all compass points with that corona morphing overhead all at the same time. I'm fairly certain that's the aurora glowing on the parched fields around this area. The breeze from earlier had gone and it was dead still, the night was so mild we had to take our coats off, this was bliss, a warm Spring night with mega aurora. Then what shocked us was that the birds began singing loudly in the trees beside us, it definitely wasn't normal, we suspected the aurora was so bright the birds mistook it for the approaching dawn, yet it was only 01.30.

Continuous corona action, this turned out to be another decent time lapse. We where now standing in the middle of a road at the dead of night in the middle of nowhere surrounded by beautiful countryside, we couldn't have asked for a better setting.

I climbed a wire fence and set-up the camera on marshland for another short time lapse. Look how tall those beams are, extending beyond the 15mm FOV, remarkable. If you are new to this get yourself a wide angle lens such as 10mm for crop sensor or 15mm for full frame, you will need it for any aurora in the G3-G5 category, especially if you want to get the full structure with foreground subjects. That pole in the middle is actually the only wind turbine in Broughderg and the famous groups of trees on the left are well known to locals.

The constellation of Corona Borealis the Northern Crown was visible in clear sections within the middle of the corona, it was almost like the aurora was framing it and aware of its importance. As is custom I glanced to the SE corner of the Crown to make sure that no new bright star had suddenly appeared, tonight TCrB was behaving itself, perhaps this will be the next astronomical event to thrill us in the near future.

At 03.00 we decided to call it a night, I was back in Cookstown just before 04.00, I tried to be quiet going inside but Roisin was already awake, she had just woke up and had seen social media flooded with amazing images, she asked how did it go, I said absolutely amazing, 100% success, it was the perfect night, and its still visible, she was shocked, so she came outside and together with Rhua we stepped into the backyard and there was an aurora overhead from Cookstown.

Roisin got to see the corona and we watched in awe has it silently formed against a background of stars above the trees in our garden. Roisin said she felt blessed to have seen it, then as I watched I was yet again amazed to see rapid motion, not as bright as earlier but the velocity seemed to have increased dramatically. Forms appeared within a second, then vanished in an instant as if erased from the sky, then a new form would appear again, all yellow-green, I saw omega shapes then finally for a brief second a heart. It was at this moment that we called it a night. This was the best aurora I had experienced since 2003, it was visually stunning and a photographer's dream which yielded my best aurora images and time lapse of my life, and furthermore it was clear all night long. That corona however was the longest lasting I've ever experienced so that makes this night a new record breaker for my log books. As I went to bed I remembered that the models were showing CAPE for Sunday, I wondered was it possible to get thunderstorms on the same weekend as this aurora, that would be the icing on the cake.

Sunday May 12th, 800 CAPE with -40c cloud tops, 20 knots of low level shear and a marked convergence zone across the entire country, it looked to be an active day for storms. Two days after the aurora I was still buzzing with that special glow you only get from seeing Mother Nature at her finest. I kept my expectations low today but secretly I was thinking if I heard one rumble of thunder or saw lightning then this would be the perfect end to an action packed weekend. Convection fired around midday and the air was warm and humid, it felt like a true storm day, this would be the first real warm season convective day of 2024.

Roisin, Rhua and I went chasing for the day, we chose the Sperrins area again as it looked to be a good location to get on the convergence zone when it overlapped with prime heating and maximum instability. We arrived at Beaghmore Stone circles and sat down under a tree to enjoy the scenery, five minutes later thunder rumbled from a convective line to our west/southwest, then more thunder, success had arrived early. Colleen arrived to join us so we all sat on the grass enjoying the storm with drones in the air watching the bases and cores. Roisin and Colleen observed a great c-g over Broughderg near the wind turbine, the very spot we had been watching beams two nights earlier, this part of the country really is magical.

After eight rumbles the storm arrived but we wanted to stay out of the core, then another storm erupted close by to our east with perhaps another five rumbles, we chased east along the back roads between Beaghmore and Davagh, passed the fairy tree, then pulled in near Davagh Forest, we where in the dry slot between two cores and two active storms. Most of the lightning was in-cloud or high in the updraught so it was a rumble fest, we then pursued the second storm, my theory was that outflow from the earlier cores was triggering new convection ahead so we chased into drier air ahead of the towers.

We passed through Draperstown then into Tobermore ahead of a new base and pulled in for a look. Within minutes a new core was dumping precip with flash flooding over the country and new rumbles began near us, this was our third storm of the day. Drones in air again, filming the core, I saw a fantastic c-g on the drone's screen with several twists, it was a beauty, but never got it on my footage when I checked later. I kept filming, the storm was moving swiftly away but I caught another c-g, this is a frame from the footage. I was happy with this trophy from the chase, it wasn't a structure day but the rumbles and c-gs completely made up for that.

Our last stop was at the Moyola River near Tobermore, same storm with big core and a more thunder, it was over the bottom of Glenshane Pass already, that's the river below. The chase ended here at 18.00 then a well earned takeaway and back home to rest, what a great weekend!

Full time lapse video of the G5 geomagnetic storm, beginning with drone footage of the fairy tree at dusk then the DSLR lapse of the storm showing various aspects of the display which really got my attention. However it was the 30 second long sequence of the corona which did it for me, my personal favourite moment and in my opinion my personal best night lapse I've ever captured. Best watched at 1080p HD. Thanks very much for reading.


Martin McKenna

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