Experiencing the St Patrick's Day Aurora

St Patrick's most famous prayer, The Breastplate, finishes off with an invocation: that the protection of the Christ for him would be so complete that it surrounds him completely. 

Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left.
— St Patrick's Breastplate

As I reflect back on that most amazing of auroral displays on 17 March 2015, these words come to mind. I have been lucky enough to have seen seven aurora displays in Northern Ireland since my first in October 2013. But, up until this point, these have mostly been confined to the northern horizon, rising  perhaps 20 degrees into the night sky. 

The display on St Patrick's day was like nothing I have seen before. Like in St Patrick's prayer, the aurora before me surrounded me, filling my field of vision - and them some! Here's is the story of that night. 


As I wrote in my last blog, the stats had been very good all the afternoon of the 17th, and there was the promise of quite the display that night. I had actually just returned that afternoon from a work trip overseas, so I was tired from the journey and could quite well have decided just to get an early night that night. But the lure was too strong - the skies were clear and the stats were good. I could just pop out for an hour and see what, if anything, was happening. 

Carnfunnock

The display sneaks past the light pollution at Carnfunnock

The display sneaks past the light pollution at Carnfunnock

I headed at first to Carnfunnock, just north of Larne. There are views north here over the sea, so I thought it'd be a good location to check out if anything was going on. The light pollution there is still quite marked from Larne to the south, so there wasn't really too much visible to the naked eye. 

But the long exposure on the camera proved that something was indeed going on. Not only was there green rising maybe 25 degrees above the horizon, but the camera was just about picking out some structure already, with vertical rays just discernible. Not only that, but the sky above seemed to be awash with that reddy/purple auroral glow. At first glance, it looked to me that the whole sky was coloured - but I wasn't sure if this was aurora or the glow of light pollution from Larne. As I was to discover soon, however, this was indeed aurora light. And it was the first sign that this show was going to be bigger than anything I'd witnessed before. 

After about 20 minutes, I was joined by my trusted photo buddy Alistair White, who had brought along some neighbours of his, the Davidsons, who had never seen the aurora before. I always love seeing people witness the aurora for the first time, and when I showed it to them on camera, it was wonderful to see their excitement spill over into enthusiastic exclamations.

Glenarm

It was game on for sure for the night, but we needed to get somewhere darker. So further north we headed, around a few coastal headlands towards Glenarm. And it was there that we really got the sense of what was going on. Away from the light pollution, that tell tale  lightened, off-white glow was very visible to the naked eye,  rising well up into the sky. The structure was still there, but this time it was visible to the naked eye. For me, this is really when the aurora magic begins. Sure, it's great to see the lighter part of the sky, and it's a joy to capture this on camera with its colour on display. But it's when you can see those distinctive aurora rays with the naked eye that you know you're in for a special treat.

Structure and light become clearer near Glenarm

For the next half hour or so, we got busy taking photos. Alistair White was taking shots of the Davidsons (one of which ended up on the BBC website) while I tried for my first aurora timelapse. Such was the structure and the movement, that I managed to capture a decent enough, if short, display. It's in timelapses like these that you get a sense of just how dynamic and energetic these displays are. And it was great to be doing this while enjoying the energetic whoops and hollers of delight coming from the Davidsons nearby as they revelled in their first aurora display. Despite how good the display was at this stage, I still had no idea of what was to come in about an hour's time.

After my timelapse was done, I bid farewell to the others, and headed off for some other nearby places with better foreground interest.  

The amount of light being cast by the aurora was more than I had previously witnessed, lighting the sea and the beach before me.

What struck me as I did this was just how much ambient light was being given off by this aurora. Despite the fact that there was no moon shining, the foreground was not as dark as it can be in moonless starlit nights. And it was as I took some long exposures with my camera that I soon discovered where this ambient light was coming from. The sea had a green tinge, and some parts of the land (including the chalk beaches of the Antrim coast) had something of a red/purple hue. This was the light from the aurora itself, so strong that it was lighting the ground. I had heard of such sights visible in Northern Ireland before, but never had I seen it myself.

And yet, this was still only the precursor to the main show that was less than an hour away at this stage.

Carnlough

I soon got itching feet again and decided to head further north. With the sea so green, I really wanted to get onto a beach somewhere and down by the waves. Next stop: Carnlough. There is a lovely wide sandy beach there - but also quite a lot of light pollution from the town. Still, it was the only beach nearby, so I quickly headed down onto the sand to shoot out into the sea.

And it was then that it happened.

The display bursts into life at Carnlough

I was shooting away on the beach, thinking to myself that there was too much light pollution around and that I'd have to head south again, when the faint glow that was peeking through over the street lights burst into action. During the first aurora I witnessed in October 2013, I had been watching the green band at Dunluce when the rays appeared, suddenly and dramatically. Since then, I have likened them to World War 2 spot lights suddenly turned on and drifting slowly across the skies.

On St Patrick's night, the spotlights again turned on, but this time thrusting high into the sky, and wide across the full green auroral band. And these were so clearly visible to the naked eye, even above the considerable light spilling into the night sky from Carnlough below. Strong and resolute, these sudden wonderful appearances towered above the now tiny landscape below, angelic pillars of glory thrust high into the heavens. Even with my wide angle 11mm lens, this display was much wider than one shot could capture, so I quickly turned my camera around into portrait orientation for some panoramic shots. I was just about to fit everything in. 

As I was doing this, a couple of cars drove past me along the sea front. 'If only you knew what was on display here right now,' I thought to myself. 'You'd be out of that car and onto the beach in a flash!'

After about 15 minutes or so, the display weakened a bit. 'I'm going to make a dash for somewhere with less light pollution,' I thought. So I quickly jumped back into the car and headed a bit further south, around the headland between Carnlough and Glenarm.

And it was there that the display of the night - and of my aurora viewing career so far - was just about to happen. 

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