Chasing the northern lights from the UK is a fickle business. The impressive displays of lights overhead – the photos you normally see posted up from Alaska, Northern Canada or Northern Scandinavia – are rarely seen at lower latitudes. Most of the time a diffuse auroral glow is about the best we get to see here in Central Scotland. But I was lucky to have seen them again last night, the third time this year.
Frustratingly, I got an aurora alert on my phone mid-afternoon to say that geomagnetic conditions had reached ‘storm levels’ (that’s Kp7 in the jargon). At this level you could expect to see an aurora across most of the UK with a strong showing in Scotland. But I had to wait for darkness.
Usually, the strength of an aurora will vary over the course of an evening but unless it’s very strong, conditions often don’t last beyond 5 or 6 hours. So with clear skies forecast for last night, I just had to keep my fingers crossed that the lights would still be visible once it got dark.
While at this time of year the sun sets here at 9pm, it’s really not properly dark until about 11pm. I walked up the hill near our house at 9.30pm to try to get a long exposure of the International Space Station flying overhead. Unfortunately, it was just too light for the camera to pick it up and I came away with nothing save a nice view of the mountains silhouetted against the fading light. (Interestingly, though, I saw quite a few photos on Twitter of it across the south of England – an extra 30 minutes’ darkness makes a big difference).
Aiming to salvage something from the clear night I headed out just after 10am to take some night-time photos (which I’ll share in a later post) and to look for the aurora. About midnight I stopped at a small car park with dark skies and a northern view. It took a few minutes for my eyes to adjust once I’d set up my tripod and camera. Sure enough, there it was: that grey/greeny hue that’s unmistakably an auroral glow.
While I could clearly see it with the naked eye a 30 second exposure brings out the colours much more vividly. The nice green glow intensifies, with a pink/purple halo reaching high up into the sky.
I watched for about 45 minutes until the clouds rolled in from the south. The aurora came in ‘waves’, waxing and waning in strength. The slideshow below shows it as its strongest when, over the course of a 5 minute period, nice shafts of light reached down to the horizon.