The real lights of Christmas

I am a sucker for Christmas. I love the excitement of the kids, the good food and fine wine, and the lights. Oh the lights! I love how they add so much atmosphere as the diffuse glow of dozens of fairy lights spread across the room. We get our lights up as early as possible – and leave it till the last moment well into January before we finally take them down. But little did I know as I climbed up into our attic at the start of December that, wonderful as all our Christmas lights are, I was going to be treated to another one of the atmosphere’s most spectacular of natural light shows – the great Christmas Eve Aurora of 2014.

When it comes to chasing aurora, I’ll often say to folks that they first thing you should do is know when aurora shows are even possible. They don’t spring out of thin air – they are caused by an enhancement of the solar wind coming from the sun, so if there is something headed our way from our nearest star, then we have more of a chance of seeing a display. There had been an aurora watch out for 21-22 December following some action on the sun, so I was keeping my eyes peeled at the aurora stats and social media to see if anything kicked off.

And indeed it did! Sunday 21 December saw some great aurora action, with shows that should have been well visible on the north coast of Northern Ireland. Why are there no photos of it here, I hear you ask? Simple – cloud. Lots of it. Covering the entire sky. All night. So, frustrating as it was, there was going to be no chance of catching a display that night at all. Yet another night where the promise didn’t deliver (you get used to that as an aurora chaser).

But Christmas is, of course, the time for giving, and this CME wasn’t quite finished with us yet. The rain that fell on Sunday kept falling on Monday and on into Tuesday afternoon. But the forecast was for clear skies on Tuesday evening. I was actually planning some astro photography (I have a photo planned of the Orion Nebula that I’d love to try for) and was all set to head out anyway. But at around 21.30 or so, a fellow aurora chaser, Brian Fullerton, posted a photo on Facebook of a green band visible at Ballintoy Harbour on the north coast. He said it was taken at 22.20, so I commented, asking him what date this was from, thinking it was one from his archives. And it turned out that it was a typo – he had meant to type 21.20. This green glow was happening right now!

The photo Brian posted on Facebook that let me and others know things had kicked off on the North Coast (Photo Credit: Brain Fullerton)

The photo Brian posted on Facebook that let me and others know things had kicked off on the North Coast (Photo Credit: Brain Fullerton)

This is the second thing you need to do as an aurora chaser – keep your eyes on social media to see pictures of actual aurora shows to know when the possible becomes a reality. The final thing you need to do is simple – when you discover it’s happening, head out as fast as you can! I picked up a good buddy of mine, Alistair White, and we headed north for my favourite north coast castle – Dunluce.

The last time we did this drive was during the amazing aurora display of February 2014, when we first saw the aurora over Slemish. This time, there was no display on the way up, but the clouds were clear and the aurora stats were still looking good. But, about 5 minutes before we arrived at the coast, it started to rain. Not more pesky cloud! When we got to the castle, I quickly checked my rain radar app to see that a series of showers were feeding in from the west, coming in bands that would take about 5 minutes or so to pass. That meant that we might have some periodic cloud, perhaps with some rain, but that there would be a strong chance of breaks in those clouds in between. There was still everything to play for!

We got into position, tripods up, cameras in place and took our first snaps. It was still quite cloudy to the north over the Atlantic Ocean, but in between some small breaks, there was a definite lightening of the sky and a hint of green on camera. Overhead was clear, and the sky was heavy with stars, their twinkling light putting on an amazing show all of their own, including the swathe of the Milky Way stretching and arcing above us.

A wee glimpse of light green poking through a break in the cloud on the right of the photo

Soon, the next band of rain came in and we decided to take shelter in the car as it passed, which only took about 5 minutes (us two had become three as we met David Wright there - he told me that it was a post of mine in October 2013 when I saw my first aurora that had alerted him to the action and he made it in time to see his first aurora himself!). Then it was back into action. As I walked from the car back down towards the Castle, picking my way carefully over the rain-sodden and muddy grass, I saw a thin, broken band of much lighter sky. “Look at that!” I said to my colleagues. “You mean look at the lighter clouds?” one of replied, sceptically. But I was sure that the glow was too intense for that to be simply cloud. I thought it was someone much more exciting.

The scene closer to what it looks like with the naked eye. The lighter portions running horizontally are not lighter cloud in front of the cloud banks, but breaks in the cloud with the tell tale whitish glow of an aurora being revealed behind.

So I put the camera in place, set the focus and settings again, and pressed the shutter. It was a 30 second exposure (plus another 30 seconds of noise reduction in the camera). It took a minute, 60 second of tense waiting. But when the screen popped into life on the back of the camera, there she was in all her glory. That tell-tale green glow that can only mean one thing – the aurora was back on the north coast, with what was teasing us as possibly the best show since February 2014. But we could only catch glimpses of it through the cloud. Would this merely be another tantalising tease that didn’t deliver in the end…?

The same photo as above, but this time how it appears on camera. The combination of long exposure, a sensitive light sensor and a white open aperture allow you to see colour in camera that is just not visible to the naked eye.

Not this time! As the cloud bands continued to be quickly swept east by the strong winds, a gap started to open up to the west, and then over the Castle itself. And there was that unmistakable silhouette, standing in stark relief against the vivid green glow on the aurora behind. We had got our green and I think at that stage we would have been quite happy with our photos if the cloud had closed in again.

But this was Christmas, a time for giving after all. And this display wasn’t quite done with us yet. Within the next 10 minutes or so, the cloud cleared even more, vanishing from above to reveal the glory of the star-lit sky again. But, crucially, it also cleared lower down, until there was only a narrow, broken band on cloud clinging to the northern horizon over the sea.

And it just so happened that this break coincided with another peak in aurora activity. People often ask me what the aurora looks like in real life. The short answer is not like the photos (I will do doing another blog on this soon to give you a better idea of what to look for). The aurora is not as bright, and no-where near as colourful. However, during peaks in the show, the brightness intensifies and the white band becomes very distinct and clear. And, if you’re lucky, some vertical pillars of light will become visible to the naked eye. I’ve likened it elsewhere to the turning on of WW2 spotlights, with beams of light reaching far up into the night sky. And this is exactly what we were treated to next. The brightest and best display of the night, coinciding exactly with the point when the cloud cover was at its minimum. And this is what we got! The vivid green glow, a distinct red band above it, and the vertical pillars of light, all reaching up into the most amazing night sky, as the Milky Way stretched up above the Castle. Carlsberg don’t do aurora displays on the north coast, but if they did…

The (Minus) Three Degrees standing down at the barrier taking our shots. This photo was taken by Ken Cox - I didn't even realise he was behind us till I saw this one appear on Facebook! Photo Credit: Ken Cox

The (Minus) Three Degrees standing down at the barrier taking our shots. This photo was taken by Ken Cox - I didn't even realise he was behind us till I saw this one appear on Facebook! Photo Credit: Ken Cox

We took our window of opportunity, snapping away until the next rain band closed in and forced us back to the car. After this, I couldn’t resist one last trip back down for this final shot. It was now around 0300 hours and time to head home (although it always breaks my heart to leave an active aurora display behind!)

I still love the Christmas lights in our house. I still enjoy the Christmas glow they give to our home. But it will take a lot to top the natural Christmas lights display I saw in the early hours of Christmas Eve on 2014. And as we drove home, my mind turned to the Christmas story where it is said that the skies above Bethlehem also filled with glorious light:

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.” (Luke 2)

 It wasn't angels we saw that night, but the celestial display certainly was awe inspiring - it felt like Glory was shining all above us indeed!

Watch out for my next blog in the next few days where I show you what the aurora actually looks like to the naked eye so you can spot it yourself net time there's a display.


One of my photos made it into a BBC NI gallery, along with some other shots taken by fellow aurora hunters that night.

We also made it into a DIscover NI gallery.

My other aurora blogs: