We were treated to an unusually strong showing of the northern lights this week as a high speed solar wind reached the Earth’s geomagnetic field. Reaching Kp 7, it was so strong that the aurora was visible across the UK and as far south as the Netherlands and Germany. Luckily for us it also all kicked off just after dark when skies were pretty clear for most of the UK.
I knew the aurora was forecast a couple of days earlier and so quickly left home once I saw my favourite aurora app (Solar Monitor) show that geomagnetic conditions had reached ‘minor storm’ level (Kp5). I also spotted reports on Twitter although AurorawatchUK were still only showing conditions at ‘active’ (yellow warning) level. AurorawatchUK have since issued a statement to say that they “got it wrong” in not reporting the strength of the aurora. (In my experience, AW isn’t particularly accurate anyway – I would normally use this only as a guide and place much greater reliance on Solar Monitor and Spaceweather … and Twitter).
Anyway, enough of this geeky stuff. What happened, I hear you say ?
Well for me at least, the lights were ‘on’ as soon as I parked up at about 8.30pm in one of my preferred stargazing locations. A wide arc extended right across the northern sky, clearly visible to the naked eye. The Perthshire skies slowly cleared over the next two hours as the show unfolded. Unfortunately some stubborn thick clouds obscured the eastern end of the arc and from seeing others’ photos from the East Coast (Fife, Stonehaven), this is where the brightest green lights danced during the evening.
Shafts of purple light could be seen at a higher altitude to the green arc, which comprised a couple of distinct bands. I took a few photos at my initial spot but then got fed up with other folk arriving in their cars and blinding me with their full beam headlights. I moved on.
Luckily, my next spot was out of the way with no one else around. I spied some larch trees which looked like they would make for an interesting foreground. The lights came and went in waves every 20 minutes or so. Just as the show looked like it was dying down did things brighten up again and the whole thing kicked off again.
After 9pm occasional shafts of red lights appeared. Now these are much harder to spot with the naked eye – it’s essentially a different shade of milky white !! But with a bit of practice it’s easier to see when red lights might be appearing: at a higher altitude and sometimes towards the north eastern or north western ‘edges’ of the auroral arc.
If there’s one thing I learned from this last trip out then it’s to check – and double-check – my camera settings. You’ll no doubt have noticed that my pictures are not as sharp as they should be … Photographing the aurora calls for manual focus, and if this isn’t set to infinity (or just short of infinity) then the results will not be pin-sharp. While I did zoom in to check my pictures on the small 3″ screen on the back of my camera while I was out, I clearly should have taken some more test shots. The result is that none of my photos are in focus – and I’m kicking myself for it.
In spite of this, I hope this gives a good sense of what I – or at least the camera – saw !
Did you see the lights this week ? Was your experience similar to mine ?