The auroral volcano

Every once in a while, the forecast of a possible aurora spreads more widely than the little word of dedicated aurora chasers and enters the wider public consciousness. There've been one or two occasions since I started chasing auroras when this has happened. In both cases, thousands of expectant aurora virgins have headed out in hope and expectation - only to be disappointed. It seemed that one thing certain to ensure that the aurora promise amounted to nothing was getting the public's hopes up!

Thankfully, that jinx was broken last Wednesday, when at last the hype lived up to its promise. A widely anticipated aurora delivered - and delivered in bucket loads! This is my story of the night, along with a little bit of the science behind it designed for those who would like to begin to be able to forecast the aurora for themselves and not be so dependent on the media giving up the heads up

This is also the story of the aurora that erupted out of the top of an ancient and long extinct volano called Slemish Mountain.

The anticipation

As we headed towards darkness on Wednesday 7th October, the stats were looking very promising indeed for a possible decent show that night. And the weather forecast promised a good chance for clear skies. The moon wasn't due to rise till after 0100 hours. The ducks were getting fairly well aligned for a good night!

I was one daddy taxi duties in the early evening, so I knew it'd be close to 2100 until I could get into position. But, as I prepared to set off to Slemish, I checked reports in Aurora UK to discover that the aurora was already visible in the fading twilight - and that someone in Glasgow had reported seeing it overhead! I was buzzing with excitement as I got into the car and headed out. I glanced up at the sky - it was totally cloudless.

As soon as I got out of the light pollution, I knew for myself that this was going to be good. Even over the lights coming off my dashboard and reflecting off the car windows, I could clearly see the aurora by the naked eye, filling a huge swathe of sky to the North-East. I couldn't wait to be in position!

I arrived at Slemish to discover two fellow photographers already in position. In the darkness, we introduced ourselves - it was Cliff and Marty, two guys I'd interacted with on Twitter on all things aurora. They'd just arrived before me.

I got the camera set up as quickly as possible and did my first test shots. Boy was it there - a very intense green glow on camera. And a definite green tinge to the naked eye. We were going to be in for a treat tonight!

Apart from one thing, that was. The clear skies that I'd observed as I left for Slemish had all but gone under a blanket of thin but annoying cumulostratus clouds. The clouds had appeared as it from nowhere, Marty said. And they were closing in on the horizon, snuffing out the display before our very eyes. I've seen this before on the Antrim Plateau - the air rising from the bowl around Lough Neagh, forming a shallow cloudy veil. In fact, the very same cloud had sent me for the coast during the Mid Summer's Day aurora earlier this year.  I deliberated such a move again. In fact, I had my camera packed away ready to take the risk and be driving when an active aurora could kick off at any time. 

But, just then, I noticed a break in the clouds, and decided to give it 10 more minutes. Best decision I made that night (aside from heading out in the first place of course!) Almost as soon as it had arrived, the cloud mostly cleared. 

And then it all happened. 

The big display

As the cloud cleared, I started to shoot a panorama, trying to get the Milky Way in that was sitting high in the sky to the North-East. I was stunned by the brightness of the green arc. But, as I finished the pano, the structure began to show - large pillars of light shot high into the sky, bright and vivid, so clearly visible to the naked eye. Below then, the arc of the aurora undulated and pulsated with dramatic movement. The speed of movement took me right back to St Patrick's Day 2015, as the aurora literally danced a jig across the sky above us. 

The brightness kicked up a notch too. There was blobs of such intense light that appeared all along the arc, glowing with an intensity that was incredible to behold. And the colour - oh the colour! I have seen one aurora at Slemish before where the colour was so visible to the naked eye. But this topped even that one. The green tinge to the light was so distinct.

With both the brightness of the light and the speed of movement, I dailed the shutter speed way down to 2 seconds - I wanted to capture the structure, and faster than that would have caused the pillars to blur and merge. 

For about 20 minutes, we were treated to the most marvellous of displays, and Marty, Cliff and I exchanged hollers and whoops of delight as we were transfixed by the celestial choreography on display all around us.

Only a bright glow

The active part of the display slowly subsided. The intensity dropped back and the pillars faded. "All" we were left with was the amorphous green arc, still glowing brightly and with a noticeable green tinge. We chatted excitedly about what we had just seen, laughing that we were now a bit underwhelmed by the residual glow, given the show that we had just witnessed!

Over the next hour or so we snapped on. The aurora, although a bit quieter now, still looked like it was about to kick off at any moment. The sky was pregnant with promise.

I took the chance to get onto social media, imploring people to get out to enjoy this view. Within half an hour, my trusted photography buddy Alistair White had arrived, along with our mutual friend Adele. Adele is a relatively new aurora chaser (her first was the St Patrick's Day show) and one of the most enthusiastic aurora observers I've had the joy of watching the lights with.

They arrived just in time. Within minutes, the second big display of the night kicked off. Not quite as fast, or bright, or extensive as the first. But glorious nonetheless. 

In fact, a glorious ray appeared before our very eyes, emerging right out of the top of Slemish Mountain itself. As I put it on my Facebook page when posting this shot:

Who says you need to go to Iceland to see the aurora erupt out of a volcano...???

The is Slemish Mountain, Co Antrim, a dolerite plug that formed the heart of an ancient volcano formed when Ireland was as Iceland is today. It's a short drive from my home, and a favoured spot for aurora hunting for me. Last Wednesday night's display was amazing from here. And just towards the end, a bright visible beam shot up high from right on top of the mountain, as if exploding from the heart of this long dead tectonic feature, spewing forth photons of light all across the sky!

And the icing on the cake was the reflection of auroral light in the little stream, meandering towards me. It was almost as if an auroral lava flow was descending from the flanks of the erupting volcano itself...!

Well, it is all like this when an amazing aurora display makes you giddy with excitement and fires the imagination somewhat!

This particular show lasted about 15 minutes. As it drew to an end, the cloud began to close in once more from the West, and I decided to call it a night. We said our farewells, headed our separate ways, feasting on the memory of the most incredible display.

As I posted on my Facebook page about the show, I asked  how many folks had seen the aurora for the first time that night. Reading some of the replies that came in made me smile and I enjoyed the delight that people were clearly expressing at being able to see it for themselves at long last.

And, if you'd like to witness the aurora yourself one day, watch out for my next blog post where I'll discuss some of the science behind the show and how you might be able to start your journey as an aurora forecaster!