Orwell Astronomical Society (Ipswich)
Aurorae, 1989 - 2023
An aurora occurs when electrons in the solar wind reach the vicinity of the Earth and interact with the magnetosphere (Earth's magnetic field), focusing them along spiral paths towards the polar regions. The interaction of the electrons with molecules of nitrogen and oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere produces the characteristic diffuse curtains or streamers of colour, varying from whitish green to deep red. Aurora form primarily at an altitude of circa 100 km above each pole and for this reason are most commonly seen from high northerly or southerly latitudes. However, at times of extreme solar activity, the Earth’s magnetic field can become distorted, making the aurora visible from lower latitudes.
The Latin name for the northern hemisphere phenomenon is Aurora Borealis, meaning northern dawn. The corresponding term for the southern hemisphere phenomenon is Aurora Australis.
Aurorae are most frequent and impressive when the Sun is at or near solar maximum. Solar activity follows an approximately 11-year cycle which attained maximum in 1990, 2001 and 2013. Observers in Ipswich have witnessed three magnificent auroral displays since the late 1980s, near the dates of solar maximum: 13-14 March 1989, 08-09 November 1991, 06-07 April 2000 and 26-27 February 2023. In addition, members of OASI have travelled to high northern latitudes in Alaska, Norway and Finland to observe the aurora.
On a trip to Rovaniemi in Finland, 15-22 November 2023, although auroral displays were taking place, persistent cloud and mist prevented them being seen. But on return to the UK, my luck changed!
On 25 November, following an alert from the AuroraWatch app, I set up my camera in the back garden at Nacton. The aurora was not visible to the naked eye, but the camera caught it.
Canon EOS 550D, 14 mm, f2.8 Samyang lens, ISO 1600, Eight second exposures looking roughly north. Gamma adjusted to 0.5 to suppress the sky glow caused by a nearly full Moon.
Images of an aurora captured on the night of 19 November 2023, while on an excursion by coach from Narvik, Norway to Abisko National Park, Sweden. En-route, the aurora became visible and the driver stopped the coach to provide a photo opportunity in a lay-by off the E10 on the Norwegian side of the border.
Canon 1200D camera with 14 mm, f2.8 Samyang lens. Ten second exposures at ISO 1600.
An auroral display on the evening of 05 November 2023 was visible over much of the UK.
The images below were taken with an iPhone 12 Pro Max.
The evening of Sunday 05 November started as a normal Guy Fawkes' night until I received a WhatsApp message from Toni Smith (Alan’s daughter) with a photo of the aurora taken from Grundisburgh. I responded quickly and she replied with three more photos taken earlier in the evening. (The photos are above.)
Looking outside, I could see the sky was partly cloudy but there was a possible hint of red in the north. I quickly assembled my camera equipment and drove to a farm entrance off Playford Road, just north of Ipswich, arriving at 18.45 UT. The view of the northern horizon was much better than at home and I could just discern a glow of the aurora between ever-increasing cloud. I quickly attached the camera to a tripod and took several photos with a 10 s exposure. Unfortunately, the cloud cover soon deteriorated to such an extent that I could observe only a nearby fireworks display! Following the display, I returned home.
Later in the evening, at 22:00 UT, I let our dog out for his night run. Looking at the sky the clouds had almost gone. Again, I quickly bundled the camera equipment into the car and set off once more to the observing site on Playford Road, this time accompanied by Judith. On arrival, there was a faint glow in the north, which was very obvious in photographs. I took a steady stream of images of between 8 and 10 s duration, apart from frequent interruptions due to the headlights of passing cars. I was surprising at how many cars used a minor road late at night; some drivers sounded their horns, thinking that we were up to something else! The strangest item of passing traffic was a person on a bicycle, the ethereal-looking rider illuminated only by the glow of a phone screen. Eventually, the aurora began to fade and cloud cover increased, so we called it a night and returned home to warm up.
Images below taken with a tripod-mounted Canon 850D, 8 s exposure at ISO 6400.
Hand-held Nikon D3200, 6 s exposure at ISO 3200.
My meteor camera recorded traces of the aurora in the early evening when the Sun was only about 8° below the horizon - then the clouds rolled in. Around 22:00 UT the aurora sprang back into life. The display lasted for more than two hours, but most of it was hidden by cloud. The clip below shows the liveliest part of the display.
There was an aurora late on the night of 25 September 2023. The display lasted for more than two hours, but most of it was hidden by cloud. The clip below shows the liveliest part of the display.
The weather forecast for the night of 23-24 March was for grey, cloudy skies. However, in the event, the sky cleared at around 23:30 UT to reveal an aurora in progress. Apart from a bank of cloud obscuring the display at around 02:00 UT, a red glow in the northern sky was visible through to sunrise.
The video immediately below shows a 4 hour 40 minute display compressed down to a little over a minute by running at 250x live rate. The video underneath it shows one of the more active sessions at around 03:00 UT at only 25x live rate. For reasons unknown there are gaps in the recording so there are some ugly-looking jumps in the video.
An auroral display visible over the UK in late February 2023 caught most observers completely unprepared! The display occurred on the nights of 26 and 27 February, and was by far the more intense on the first night. On the second night, following an evening of informal talks at Newbourne Village Hall, several members of OASI stayed on outside the hall to photograph the aurora, faintly visible to the north. Others observed from elsewhere in Ipswich.
Mike Whybray's four best photos, taken 20:55-21:24 UT on 27 February 2023, are below. Canon EOS 550D, 14 mm Samyang F2.8 lens stopped down half a stop. ISO 1600, 4 s exposures. Resolution halved and colour saturation increased.
The photos show vertical white/green striations developing into a general red glow. Only one observer (out of perhaps a dozen present) claimed to be able to see the aurora by eye
The following video shows the aurora during the period 20:50 -21:25 UT. Some frames which were contaminated with light from car headlights, etc, have been excluded (resulting in some jerkiness in the video). Colour saturation has been increaed. Frames were recorded with an exposure time of 4 seconds. Playback is at 10 frames/s, resulting in an acceleration of 40x.
Canon 500D camera with Samyang 14 mm f/8 lens. 15 s exposure, ISO 1500. No i/r block. Tweaked using Affinity Photo.
Alan Smith's all-sky camera captured the auroral glow just above the northern horizon on 26 and 27 February. Camera details: ZWO ASI294 with 4.5 mm Sigma fisheye lens, f2.8, gain 300, colour, rotating shutter. Each exposure is of 40 s duration, displayed for 200 ms in the video, i.e. 200x acceleration. The aurora was considerably more intense on the first night than on the second.
26 February, 21:00-23:59 UT, 258 frames. Apart from aircraft trails, all was quiet 22:00-23:00 UT.
27 February, 20:54-21:18 UT, 35 frames.
The following video was captured on 26 February by my north-facing camera, which was set to monitor the sky, avoiding terrestrial objects. It captures 35 minutes of auroral activity, starting with a red tinge in the bottom right corner. As the camera is pointed too high for the aurora, all the activity is confined to the lower edge of the frame.
On the morning of 27 February I replaced two cameras. The new north-facing camera captured the below video. Although it was pointing at lower altitude than the model it replaced, this was beneficial for capturing the aurora, which was confined to low altitude. The auroral activity was not as strong as during the previous night, and the phenomenon was not visible to the naked eye.
There was much anticipation prior to the trip to Tromsø, as it was to be the first time I was able to escape the country since the Covid epidemic. My attempts over the preceding two years had been thwarted by plague or storm!
After an intensive course of self-learning on what the various authorities required for travel to Norway and back, requirements which kept changing, I embarked on a mammoth form-filling exercise. Eventually I was armed with the necessary set of six QR codes, so travel could begin!
The journey to Tromsø was uneventful, apart from 30 minutes circling the runway to to allow it to be cleared of snow and a "priority" flight to land ahead of us, which of course meant a further wait for the runway to be cleared again. We eventually landed safely. And so the adventure began...
We landed at Terminal C. I didn’t know that Tromsø had a Terminal C. After de-planing, the passengers had to queue in the snow outside the makeshift cattle shed cum temporary arrival hall before reaching passport control. Here Brexit hit home. The one person with a French passport had a queue to herself. "Other nationalities" had to join the huge, snowy queue. After passport control, and two QR codes later, we lined up for the mandatory arrivals lateral flow test (at least it was complimentary). After the nostril poking, we were given a code number to use on a web site that was to be texted to us half an hour later, but in the meantime were allowed to go. After catching the free transfer bus to the main terminal and then catching the airport bus to the town centre, my test result arrived. I didn’t have time to check the result before I arrived at the hotel. Luckily it was negative, but if it hadn’t been, I could have infected two busloads as well as the hotel reception.
My visit to Norway lasted from Wednesday to Saturday. The weather forecast for Tromsø for the three nights was dreadful, featuring heavy snow showers with a slight chance of broken cloud. I booked a minibus tour for Wednesday and Thursday nights, as they gave the best chance of some clear patches between the clouds.
Wednesday night started poorly and then went downhill very rapidly. I saw a pathetic bit of green colouration through a temporary gap in the cloud, but that was all. The over-enthusiastic guide told the passengers on the minibus that we had to be patient and wait for "forecast" gaps. He made the unfortunate driver pass up and down the same stretches of road many times as we went first north of Tromsø and then south of the city searching for the elusive gaps. This did not endear the guide to to the driver, who became grumpy.
Finally, the minibus arrived at a site, by a frozen lake, that I had visited previously. Here, the guide insisted that we wait, and wait, and wait for a chance of seeing the aurora. We had paid for a tour and, come blizzards or high water, the guide would ensure that we would have a good chance of observing the phenomenon. Blizzards arrived. Despite the guide providing cheese-less cheese baguettes, hot chocolate and lefse (a delicious Norwegian speciality cake, made with a unique brown cheese), by 1.00am we mutinied and forced a return to the warmth of the hotel, which we reached at 1.30am.
The weather forecast for Thursday night was better than for Wednesday night, but solar activity was reduced. There were numerous prolonged clear periods, and we saw some quiet auroral displays that coincided with clear skies. After much driving around (mobility is, after all, the selling point of a minibus tour!) we managed to find a site at Skulsfjord, on the island of Kvaløya, not far from Tromsø. There was a virtually full moon behind us, nicely illuminating the foreground, and a clear view ahead, to the north, of a fjord. The most notable event of the evening was a fireball, dramatic against a dark sky above an impressive mountain line. The track was long and slow, radiating west from Cygnus. No-one caught it on camera. By the end of the night I was incredibly cold, despite wearing six layers of clothing. Again, I reached the warmth of the hotel at 1.30am.
Friday dawned: Sol Dag in Tromsø, the day the Sun returns after its winter break. The clouds parted briefly, just enough to see a hint of the Sun on the southern horizon. Then a snowstorm began. The temperature was -4°C, so the slush of the last two days, that had been easy to walk through, turned to ice. The weather forecast for the night was not good so I abandoned any notion of attending a third minibus tour and, instead, prepared for a 5.30am start to catch the airport bus for the journey home.
Photos taken on a trip to Iceland, 08-15 February 2022. Fortuitously, a rare clear night on 12 February coincided with the arrival of a small coronal mass ejection (CME) from the Sun resulting in an impressive display. It began with a modest green band stretching from east to west low to the north. Shortly after 9.00pm, there appeared multiple bands and curtains stretching from east to west, much brighter than before and almost overhead, appearing like a vast electrical discharge! The colour was mainly green with an occasional edging of red on the lower edges. By about midnight, the display started to abate.
At -15°C, it was rather cold for observing but, fortunately, we had a hire car in which to take shelter!
Photos below were taken from a lay-by near Thingvellir National Park, South-West Iceland, using a Canon EOS550D with 14 mm F2.8 Samyang lens, stopped down to F3.5 at ISO 1600. On a trip to Norway in January-February 2017 (see below), I'd used the same equipment with 10 second exposures. However, in Iceland, the Moon was ¾ full and, with a relatively bright sky and a bright aurora, I has to shorten this to one second (with in-camera subtraction of a one second dark-frame).
I travelled to Norway for the first time in December 2021, visiting the city of Tromsø and the village of Meistervik in the north of the country. I visited with the hope of seeing the aurora, and was not disappointed!
On the first night in Norway, 03 December, I ascended Storsteinen mountain by cable car from Tromsø, and saw the aurora from the summit. On the second and third evenings in the country, I also witnessed the aurora from Meistervik, with the display on 04 December being particularly spectacular.
I used a Canon EOS 1100D taking photographs in jpeg mode, ISO 800, f5.5 with exposures in the range 5-40 seconds. The images below, taken on the first night in Meistervik, 04 December, are among the best shots I obtained.
Ever hopeful of being able to witness fantastic auroral displays just a stone’s throw from a nice, warm, hotel bedroom, I attempted once more to obtain accommodation in the Arctic Panorama Lodge in the wilds of North Norway (which I last visited in 2016 - see below). Unfortunately, my efforts were unsuccessful and I ended up instead booking an equally nice-looking boutique hotel in the Norwegian Lyngen Mountains. Alas, the hotel subsequently went bankrupt.
So, having obtained flights, airport hotels and train tickets all at non-refundable "low" prices, all I needed for an aurora expedition was accommodation! In November 2018, I made the decision to stay in Tromsø, miles from any potential location for aurora viewing, and take an "aurora safari" (these are now big business in Tromsø - every other shop advertises them). Later, I made a last minute booking for three nights at a city-centre hotel.
The long-range weather forecast at the time I made my plans did not predict the massive snowfall that blanketed mainland Europe from Norway to Greece in early January 2019. Luckily most of the snow fell in the days before I travelled to Norway, but my flight on 11 January was the last into Tromsø before the airport closed due to blizzards and high winds. This didn’t bode well for the next evening’s safari. The bus ride from the airport to the hotel went without a hitch, but pulling a heavy case through metre-high snowdrifts to the hotel was not much fun. But Grandma’s Soup in the hotel restaurant was a joy: made from sweet potatoes, carrots and sprouts, it was wonderful and compensated for being in the land of the midday dark (the Sun didn’t rise for another week or so!)
Saturday dawned. The snow had let up, but the weather forecast was mediocre at best, predicting heavy snow showers, strong winds and some clear periods. At 6.30pm, 45 people departed on a coach for a two hour transfer to a Sami camp south-west of Tromsø. As we drove, the blizzard raged around us and the guide busily worked to manage our expectations: Unfortunately we don’t always get to see the lights, etc.
When we arrived, much to my surprise, there were a few clear patches overhead. I set up the camera and managed to get one shot of a miserable trace of green. Still, the reindeer soup and lefsa cake went down nicely. The temperature was quite pleasant at only just below freezing: when dressed in as many layers of clothing as I was, it felt positively balmy. There was intermittent snowfall: I couldn’t actually tell that it was snowing and only became aware of it when I noticed something odd with the pictures I was taking and, on checking the lens, found it was half-covered in snow! After a further two hours (a total of three hours on site) our guide decided to call it a day. As we had seen a small patch of aurora, the safari company would claim the night as a contributor to its 85% success rate. Mmm!
The weather forecast on Saturday suggested that the Sunday evening would be quite clear with widespread frost (-7°C). I therefore booked the same tour on the Sunday evening, receiving a very generous £10 discount. The tour company has a selection of what they term base camps and this time we headed for a coastal location some 60 minutes away, on an island not far from Hillesøy (at coordinates 69° 38’ 1.3” N, 17° 58’ 47.6” E). We were guests of a farmer, who supplied fish soup and lefse cake. Right from the moment of arrival an auroral arc was visible above a mountain to the north and remained for the rest of the evening, varying in intensity. Viewing the aurora left little time to go and sit by the roaring camp fire. The excellent location was marred only by some of my fellow travellers: it makes no sense to me why they should think that using a flash could improve their pictures of the aurora; and, for some, the best place to stand and observe the aurora seemed to be just in front of my camera! Nevertheless, it was a good night’s observing and I captured three reasonable elapsed-frame videos.
My best shots are below, all taken Sunday 13 January 2019 with a Nikon D3200 camera with 14 mm Samyang wide-angle lens, f/2.8, ISO 1600, 6 s exposure.
The following image was taken aboard ship, steaming north, approximately 80 km NW from Tromsø on 18 February 2018 during a very active auroral display. Canon 1100D with 14 mm lens, ISO 3200, 5 s exposure.
Below are the best images captured on an observing trip to Tromsø in late-January - early February 2017. Both were taken during the evening of 30 January at Grøtfjord, approximately 40 km NW of Tromsø. Canon 550D camera and Samyang 14 mm lens at f4; 20 s exposure at ISO 800. Both images are compromised by cloud.
Usually my aurorae observing expeditions to Norway take the form of a return passage on the Hurtigruten coastal voyage from Tromsø to Kirkenes. However, since my last trip (11-12 February 2015, see below) suffered from force 12 blasts from the remnants of American hurricanes (I’m sure the intrepid travellers who journeyed with me will remember the experience vividly!), I thought that travel and accommodation on dry land would make a welcome change. So, for my 2016 expedition, I chose the Arctic Panorama Lodge, a boutique hotel in Uløya in the wilds above Tromsø in the far north of Norway, at coordinates 69° 52' 54" N, 20° 41' 42" E. The lodge was small - it had only six bedrooms - and boy, it was remote! The transfer time quoted in the brochure – a three hour road trip - was the ﬁrst clue as to how remote it was. The option of a helicopter transfer was another clue, but at £1500 each way, I concluded that the road trip would be preferable. The good news in relation to travel was the existence of a direct ﬂight from Gatwick to Tromsø; usually I have had to ﬂy via Oslo, adding an overnight stay to the journey. The bad news was that the carrier was Norwegian Air – the EasyJet of the North - with very restricted legroom; fortunately, flight duration was only three hours.
The fjords between Tromsø and the lodge.
So, on 04 November, I stood in Tromsø airport expecting to meet 10 other guests also booked in to the lodge, ready for our transfer. But no! A lady (later found to be the daughter of the owners of the lodge) was holding aloft a sign bearing my name. The fact that she was waiting in the internal arrivals hall rather than the international arrivals hall was a minor difficulty: this sort of inconvenience is common in my travels. By this time it was 6.45pm and I anticipated a three-hour drive with my chauffeuse. But again, no! The transfer included two car ferry journeys but, as the plane was slightly late in arriving, we had missed the ﬁrst. This meant driving all the way round one of the fjords, adding an extra 45 minutes to the journey. And that meant that we would miss the second ferry to Uløya island where the lodge was located. However all was not lost. Every community has The Guy – the indispensable person who contributes the everyday essentials enabling people to survive in the far north. Enter Rolf: he suddenly appeared at the ferry landing in his boat, just big enough for six passengers, and took us to Uløya, where his taxi was waiting to transfer us to the lodge. An enjoyable adventure and the weekend hadn’t even properly started. The temperature varied between -5°C and -10°C as we journeyed, with perfectly clear skies and a very active aurora. So it was a good start to the weekend.
I arrived at the lodge at 10.00pm. Was I the only guest? No, it was occupied by a group of salmon farmers who had been working for two days without a break and were determined to let their hair down. They were a friendly bunch most of whom spoke very good English. Svein, the genial host, asked if I had eaten and when I explained that Norwegian Air does not feed its passengers and I hadn’t eaten since lunchtime, Aud, the lady of the house, immediately prepared cod ﬁllets, boiled potatoes and carrots in white sauce followed by sugar-free fruit compote with cream. Very nice! They catered for diabetics – a big point in their favour. The lodge hosted Christmas parties from November to mid-December and, when I was there, the owners had well-and-truly declared Christmas! The bedrooms were small but well appointed and the common rooms were airy and spacious, very cosy and with excellent views across the fjord. The view to the north and north-east was excellent, so ideal for spotting aurorae, but the view westwards was obscured by a mountain. The entire hotel staff were very friendly and all spoke English: being a multinational group, it was the common language. Traditional Norwegian fare was on offer for all meals and with breakfast, lunch and dinner provided, there was little danger of starvation.
On the night of my arrival, all the guests and hotel staff kept telling me "you should have been here last night. The aurora was fantastic!" So at 11.00pm, it was time to get the camera out. But I saw only a very minor auroral display. I retired around 1.00am leaving the revellers partying for another four hours. I was the only guest up at 9.30am the following morning for breakfast. The following graph plots the variation in temperature as I ventured out from the lodge to view the aurora and then retired some 25 minutes later. I recorded the temperature with a BlueTherm Pro monitor from Electronic Temperature Instruments Ltd.
Variation in temperature associated with venturing outside to look at the aurora, 04 Nov 2016.
Saturday evening, 05 November: Christmas dinner, Norwegian-style. All the guests around the table worked for a company in Tromsø and were on a weekend break. I was the stranger in the midst but everyone was just as friendly as the salmon farmers the night before. Norse Christmas dinner consisted of dried salt lamb ribs and crispy cooked belly pork together with prunes, sauerkraut, sausages of various types, mashed swede and boiled potatoes. The special traditional Yuletide pudding (as if we had room) was rice porridge mixed with cream and almonds with a raspberry sauce. It was all washed down with special yule beer from the Tromsø brewery, Mack. Oh yes, the northern lights? Cloudy, so no sign! And then it snowed...
Sunday 06 November dawned to sunshine, clear skies and eggs, bacon, pickled herring, salmon and caviar. Although the solar cycle was close to minimum, the aurora forecast for the evening was moderate. The other guests all checked out ready for work on Monday. Would I be the sole guest on Sunday evening? Yes, indeed, I had the whole lodge to myself. I drafted this report looking out over the fjord to a small mountain range topped with newly-fallen snow, the Sun just beginning to illuminate the peaks. Of course, being November and 70° north latitude, the Sun did not get high in the sky. In anticipation of a spectacular auroral display in the evening (!), the hotel cook and I prepared our cameras. She hailed from the German/Danish border and had rarely seen a good auroral display from her native land. Night fell and there was a minor display around 7.00pm. Then it was back inside the lodge for dinner. Being the only guest, I sat with the owners and staff for a family-style meal of meatballs in gravy, sauerkraut and potatoes followed by Yule rice and cream pudding. The company was wonderful.
After dinner I ventured outside again. The temperature by this time was approximately -6°C. An aurora started, slowly and surely becoming more prominent as time went on. It was not really energetic but displayed masses of slow moving green ﬁlaments. After a while, I had to go inside to change the camera battery and warm up. When I returned outside, the aurora was magnificent: it covered three-quarters of the sky with fast moving, energetic curtains and rays, with red and purple edges to the green filaments readily visible for ﬂeeting moments. Many times it died down and I thought it was over, only for it to start again. I captured the following images using a Nikon D3200 camera with 14 mm Samyang wide-angle lens, ISO 400, f/3.2. After two hours I was frozen, despite my many layers of clothing, and had to retire. The best auroral display that I’ve ever seen was in Finland in 2013 (see below). All-in-all, the display in Uløya came a close second.
Patrick Cook on the island of Fetlar observed auroral activity on 25-26 September 2016. He captured the following images with a Canon 1100D camera. Details are as follows:
Observers from as far south as Norfolk reported auroral activity over the UK on the evening of 06 March 2016. Unfortunately, skies over Suffolk were cloudy, so the phenomenon was not observed there. Fortunately, solar activity continued and, the following evening, although there was a little cloud, skies over Suffolk were generally clear, and the atmosphere transparent and still.
The following members of OASI reported observations and attempted observations of the aurora on the night of 07 March.
James Appleton Stepped outside my home in East Ipswich and searched the skies by eye at 19:30, 21:15, 22:30 and 23:30 UT. There was a little cloud but very large clear areas to the north on each occasion. Saw no sign of an aurora. My northern aspect is restricted by the house and there was some light pollution.
Tina Hammond I checked the sky at approximately 22:30 UT but saw no aurora. The many street lights in the neighbourhood would have drowned out anything faint!
David Murton I captured the two images below at approximately 22:30 UT from Bucklesham. Canon 1100D camera with 14 mm lens, 15 s exposures. The images show some colour which was not visible in photographs taken earlier in the evening.
Mike O'Mahony Took a 6 s exposure at ISO 1600 at around 10:30 but nothing showed. Garden faces north, looks over fields and is reasonably free of light pollution.
Martin Richmond-Hardy Took a 6 s exposure at ISO 1600 at around 10:30 but nothing showed. Garden faces north, looks over fields and is reasonably free of light pollution.
Alan Smith Observed white rays at approximately 21:00 UT. No aurora visible at 22:30.
Following a successful observation of the solar total eclipse on 20 March 2015, made aboard the MV Oriana near the Faroe Islands, we set sail for the two day voyage to Tromsø, Norway. Mandy and I were en route to spend three days at latitude approximately 70° N to view the northern lights.
We arrived at Tromsø on Sunday 22 March at 12:30, about two hours late. This meant that our planned Husky sledge ride had to be cancelled but, fortunately, we managed to book another at Alta two days later. As we were taking a shuttle-bus ride into Tromsø, it started snowing. A major blizzard soon developed and prevailed for the rest of the day, scuppering any chance of observing the aurora.
Overnight, we sailed on to Alta, where we would spend two days in port. The first evening we planned to view the aurora from the Oriana. However, it was generally cloudy and, although one passenger managed to capture some images, I retired to bed at 01:00, unsuccessful.
The next day, Tuesday 24 March, began with heavy snowfall. But, by the afternoon, as we went on our re-arranged husky sledge ride, the sky was clearing and, by evening, was clear. Just before 21:30, when we departed on an excursion to view the aurora from dry land, we went on deck to view a bright auroral display. There were two potential viewing sites available on our excursion, one 5 km from Alta, the other 50 km distant. I was glad when the nearer site was chosen as I didn't want to miss anything! The display was very active from 21:50 until 23:30; during this period, as one part of the sky quietened another livened up and it was difficult to know where to point the camera. The aurora had a definite grey/green tinge (long exposure images, of course, make the colours more vivid). After the peak of the aurora, we retired to a lavvu (a wigwam-type structure with a fire inside), to warm up and enjoy a mug of hot chocolate. I went outside again at midnight to take more photos but, by this time, the display was quieter. The temperature dropped to -18° C by the time we finished observing and, at 00:45, we climbed back onto the bus to return to the Oriana. We were cold but happy after witnessing a fantastic display!
My camera is a Canon EOS 1200D and the settings that worked best for me were 30 seconds at ISO 800, f3.5. Many thanks to Mike O'Mahony for the loan of the 18 mm to 200 mm zoom lens and the portable tripod.
All times above are UT.
A trip to observe the aurora had been suggested at the December 2013 meeting of the Newbourne Observing Group. The fourteen months between the initial suggestion and the day of departure passed all too rapidly. Thirteen travellers had booked the excursion. Departure day dawned with reasonably clement weather at Gatwick, where most of the travellers had stayed overnight, and we had gained an extra person who had booked independently, taking the total party to 14.
Following a straightforward check-in we all met at the departure gate, full of excitement and blissfully unaware of what was to come... Our Germania Airlines chartered flight took off on time, with typical German punctuality, and headed north over Ipswich towards Tromsø, our destination. Little did we know that the remnants of Hurricane Ole awaited; it soon made its presence felt as we started our descent. At first, we experienced a little buffeting – perfectly normal as we were flying over mountains. But the turbulence got steadily worse, and started to include sudden drops of several tens of metres. Visibility was zero as there was a total white-out outside. Just as I made the throw-away observation that I hoped the pilot was trained on landing by instruments, the plane began to lurch from side to side due to wind shear and cross-winds. A hush settled over the passengers and then the engines suddenly roared into full power as the plane aborted the landing and fought to regain height. Several screams were heard from the rear of the aircraft. After a while the captain came over the tannoy and informed us that the hurricane-force winds had meant that he had been forced to abort the landing and we were circling whilst he decided whether we should go on to another airport. A change of airport would, of course, have thrown all our plans into disarray. Luckily he decided to have another go. The conditions hadn’t seemingly improved at all. Was that the sound of rosary beads I heard? I think everyone was quite nervous... Just before we landed there was a sudden lurch to one side, but in the end it was one of the smoothest landings I’ve known. You might moan about the lack of leg room on Germania (I had to leave my legs in the overhead locker) but their pilots are excellent.
We were met by a fleet of coaches to take us to the ship Kong Harold. As we passed by the hotel where we would stay after the cruise, the boat came in to view. We boarded and quickly found our cabins. The general consensus was that they were good. The food on board was generally very good too, especially the second night when we had an all you can eat buffet, although I’m not sure it was meant to be all you can eat!
We set sail and, given it was far too cloudy to see any aurora, retired at a reasonable time. Overnight we called at our first minor port of call. Little did we know that this would be our last landfall for two days. More hurricane force 12 gusts prevented us from landing at Havoysund (much to the regret of the passengers who wanted to embark or disembark there!) In fact the captain announced that we would sit out the winds in the harbour while he decided whether we should go further north or not. In the end he decided to risk the trip up to Kirkenes, although he did state that it would be a direct trip with no stops at the intervening ports. We managed to get past Nordkapp (the most northerly point in mainland Europe) and got halfway across the top of Norway to Kirkenes. However after several hours of buffeting and a 45° list due to side winds, he decided to return south make a run to a protected fjord and tie up at Alta for a day or so. This we did. The tour guide at Alta said that they don’t normally see the Hurtigruten ships in Alta, but we were the fourth that week.
From Alta we started the voyage back to Tromsø. The storms had abated and the passage was much as it should have been all along – as smooth as I had promised everyone! After the first cloudy night we saw aurora on every subsequent night. The aurora prediction was moderate every night except for the last night on land in Tromsø, which was active. I had booked a trip up the mountain cable car to the restaurant, dinner followed by a trip in to the wilderness to see the aurora. Unfortunately, the trip turned out to be to the observation deck overlooking the city – vitiated by every sort of light pollution that you can imagine. Some others of the party had booked a true wilderness safari – an hour away from the sodium lights into real darkness. The crystal clear night and the aurora all played their part in creating truly spectacular auroral displays (see Trevor Boyd's photos below). I'd like to claim credit for booking the clear skies and aurora for the group.
The journey home was far less eventful than the outward journey. I think everyone had enjoyed themselves, judging by their comments. Everyone had forgotten the landing at Tromsø and the lurching of the ship. Cameras were full of aurora pictures, and there’s only the credit card bill to look forward to....
Images by Paul Whiting, FRAS, on board the Kong Harold near Havoysund, 13 February and from Tromsø, 15 February. Nikon D3200, ISO 1600, F/4.8, 6 s exposures.
Images by Trevor Boyd from a dark location near Ramfjord, a 45 minute drive south-east from Tromsø. Taken 15 February 2015, 18:30-23:00 UT (19:30-24:00 local time). Equipment: Canon EOS 550D SLR, 18-55 mm lens, generally set at 18 mm, 5 s exposure, 1600 ISO.
Time lapse of images over a 2 minute period.
Images by Martin Richmond-Hardy on 15 February 2015 using a Canon EOS 500D. The aurora from Tromsø dockside (ISO 800, F/4, 3.2 s exposure) and sunset outside the university museum.
Paul Whiting, FRAS, Trevor Boyd, Martin Richmond-Hardy
With a wedding anniversary coming up (note to self: order flowers!) we decided a mini-break was in order. Norway/Sweden sounded cold so we opted for Iceland. Having picked up a leaflet from www.nordicexperience.co.uk at Essex AstroFest III last year, I booked a late 4-night trip for Feb/March.
We flew from Gatwick on the morning of Thursday 27 February and arrived at Keflavik airport in the afternoon, 30 minutes ahead of schedule. After a 40-minute coach ride (with free wifi!), we arrived at our hotel in time for Happy Hour (beer half price). After a walk around the city and harbour, we checked out a few restaurants and were invited to view the buffet at www.restaurantreykjavik.is. Sold!
An extra treat after was an auroral display over Reykjavik. But I only had the iPad with me.
Next morning at 9.00am we were picked up by coach and taken via various sites to our hotel for the next two nights, a few kilometres east of Vík (population about 120), in the shadow of two volcanoes (Eyjafjatllajökull - pronounced eya-fyatluh-jurkultluh) and Katla, beneath the Mýrdalsjökull. Katla has not had a sizeable eruption since 1918, and the current repose of 94 years is the longest known since reliable records began. We hoped it wouldn’t end in early March.
After dinner we piled on the coach to hunt for an aurora. But the sky became overcast and all we saw were greenish clouds (you may have done better in the UK). Never mind, astronomers have good imaginations and on the next night foray into the darkness we were rewarded with clear skies (just a few clouds) and a spectacular show of the aurora – my first. See pictures below.
Photographs by OASI member Mike O'Mahony from Karesuendo, Northern Finland (latitude 68.45° N, longitude 22.48° E) in mid-March 2013. Taken with a Canon 600D camera with 18 mm lens at f5.6, ISO 1600 with exposure 25 seconds. Mike reported difficulty positioning and operating the camera at a temperature of -30° C!
Below are three photos taken during a trip to Norway in December 2013, from just north of Tromsø, latitude 70° N. I used a Nikon D3200, 5 s exposure at F/3.5. The photographs would be even better if they had been focussed properly – a problem caused by extremely cold hands!
Observing report from Levi, Finland (67.8°N, 24.8°E), 24 February - 03 March 2013.
After a slow start to the week, 01 March 2013 produced some of the best auroral activity that I have ever seen. The activity that night was at least as animated as any I have seen in Alaska and the colours rivalled the best that I have observed from Norway.
Observing was solely visual, as the constraints of holiday travel precluded carrying the radio equipment required to record the auroral hiss or "dawn chorus"! Below is a day by day record of the observations.
|24 Feb||1||Cloudy overnight.||3||---||Nothing visible.|
|25 Feb||1||Clear||2||Hotel car park.||Nothing noted.|
|26 Feb||1||Clear then cloud / snow after midnight.||22||Glass igloo.||A lot of auroral activity between 8pm and 10pm. Mainly static displays up to 50° altitude. Green and white colours.|
|27 Feb||2||Clear||0||Hotel car park.||Some static auroral activity - green and white colours.|
|28 Feb||2||Snow overnight.||-5||---||Nothing visible.|
|01 Mar||3||Clear||-17||On top of mountain, perfect all round view. Continued from hotel car park after mountain lift closed.||Excellent auroral display. 5/8 of sky filled more or less constantly from 8pm to midnight. Very active display with rapid movements. Red and blue edges to curtain activity. Unfortunately, the extreme cold forced us to terminate observations.|
|02 Mar||2||Mostly cloudy.||-11||Hotel car park.||Possible sighting of aurora.|
|03 Mar||2||Cloudy||-16||Hotel car park / airport.||Nothing visible.|
The Sun was close to solar maximum during 2000 and the solar wind was therefore particularly vigorous. This resulted in a spectacular display of the aurora borealis on the night of 06-07 April, which was easily visible from even as far south as Suffolk. The aurora started in late afternoon on 06 April. At 15:30 UT, NASA's ACE (Advanced Composition Explorer) space probe, located 1.6 million km from Earth in the direction of the Sun, detected a fast-moving cloud of charged particles en route to Earth. At the same time, the speed of the solar wind increased from nearly 400 km/sec to nearly 600 km/sec. The cloud of charged particles arrived at the Earth approximately one hour later and the aurora commenced, becoming visible once the sky became dark.
It was fortunate that the early evening of 06-07 April saw a close conjunction of Jupiter, Mars, Saturn and the crescent Moon. The event generated interest among observers and ensured that many people were outside and looking skywards during the early evening. Once the aurora became visible, the OASI telephone hotline swung into operation to spread news of the display.
Below are the impressions and experiences of members of OASI who observed the aurora. The aurora lasted for one night only: several people looked for a display on the following evening without any success.
By chance, just days earlier, in March 2000, three members of OASI, Pete Richards, Mike Harlow and Paul Whiting, had travelled to Alaska to observe the aurora from higher northern latitudes (details above). The trip had been a great success and the trio had observed the aurora on four nights. The morphology and colour of the displays seen from Alaska were much different from those of the display seen from Ipswich. The high energy solar storm responsible for the later event produced much more intense red oxygen emissions and broader rayed bands than those seen in Alaska.
Ken and Lorraine observed 20:30-21:30 UT with a northerly view over the Stour estuary and farmland. They observed a very bright northern horizon, from the east around to the north-west. The aurora appeared very red in the northeast with red curtains fading and intensifying at intervals. Around Auriga (to the northwest), a number of pillars of light were evident, in red, white and perhaps green colours. Around 21:30 UT, auroral activity tailed off.
Neil was outdoors at circa 20:30 UT looking at Castor (due south) experimenting with some new eyepieces for a 60 mm telescope. The telescope and eyepieces passed the "Castor test" but, unfortunately, Neil omitted to glance northwards and thereby completely missed the best aurora in a decade. Oops!
David and Darren observed for periods from 20:00-23:30 UT and witnessed a brilliant show! The best displays generally occurred to the northeast, especially in the early evening. A particularly bright period from 20:45 to 21:00 UT included a very prominent red-orange beam to ENE and several bright beams due north, reaching very high into Ursa Major. There were very prominent red colours with some yellow-orange turning to green at lower altitude. Green "curtains" stretched from almost due east through to northwest, spanning almost 180°! Around 23:00 UT the display had turned mostly to green "curtains" but with a lot of structure. There was a very prominent region over Leo, well past the zenith, which lasted for about ten minutes. Overall, David thought that the display was as spectacular as the great display of 1989.
The pair took several photos of the aurora with a Minolta 700i camera using 400 ASA film; the best are reproduced below.
Pete was alerted to the aurora of 06-07 April by a phone call from a friend. At circa 23:30 UT, the aurora was mainly faint and diffuse although there were distinct pinkish-red glows in places and occasionally nice sets of distinct rays were visible which changed over periods of minutes. Occasionally, diffuse blobs of aurora appeared south of the zenith. On one occasion there were "organ pipe" rays to the northeast and just south of the zenith. At other times there appeared to be two bands - one reasonably bright to the north and another, fainter, south of the zenith implying that some activity passed slightly below our latitude.
James observed for periods from 19:15–22:00 UT. The initial view was of an extensive whitish haze at low altitudes with rapidly changing red and white colouration at higher altitudes. The whitish haze spanned from northwest through to northeast and from the horizon to an altitude of about 30°. It fluctuated slowly, over a period of several tens of minutes. The red and white colouration took over from an altitude of about 40° upwards to beyond the Pole Star: it comprised a blotchy red background, sometimes displaying "curtain" structure and thin white streamers heading towards the Pole Star. Around 22:00 UT, the red colouration became very extensive indeed, spanning approximately 150° from almost east through north to west, and extending upwards to far beyond the Pole Star. There was considerable structure evident, in the form of curtains and streamers. Although raised in the north of Scotland and therefore quite accustomed to seeing aurora, the display of 06 April was the most impressive that James had ever witnessed.
At 20:55 UT there was a very strong red glow broadly across the sky in the northeast. Over time this contracted to a narrower band and moved progressively through north to finally fade out about 21:40 UT in the northwest. The main colour was a diffuse red glow, but occasionally more vertical structure developed in a lighter white/green colour. As the display moved west, the vertical structure inclined more to the left.
Garry's initial view at 20:30 UT was of a clear starry sky with a maroon haze to the north. The haze varied in intensity between a maximum roughly equalling local light pollution levels to zero and back again over time periods of 2-3 minutes. The haze subtended roughly 60° in azimuth and from horizon to 60° altitude. Also visible were vertical shafts approximately 1° wide, spaced by similar intervals, extending from the horizon to 60° altitude in front of the maroon haze. The shafts were whitish with a hint of green. They also appeared NNW against a clear sky. The intensity of the shafts varied independently of the variations in the haze. By 21:00 UT a smaller patch of maroon haze became apparent to the northeast, in addition to the above. By 22:30 UT activity to the north had ceased, however the maroon haze was apparent low in the sky due west.
All Mike's photographs were taken with 8, 16 or 24 mm lenses. The first photograph, taken early during the display, shows green oxygen emission on the northern horizon with red rays above and an intense yellow ray in the east.
Martin took the following photographs on 200 ASA film with a 50 mm lens at f1.8.
Three members of OASI, Pete Richards, Mike Harlow and Paul Whiting, went on the Explorers Tours trip to Alaska to observe under the auroral oval. Their stay in Alaska lasted for five nights, all of which were clear, and on four of which, fine auroral displays were visible.
Photos by Mike Harlow.
Photos by Pete Richards, taken on 1000 ASA film.
At 21:57 UT, low in the north, at an altitude of 22° (below the handle of Ursa Major), a blue-green aurora became visible. It consisted of a pale curtain-like structure extending over approximately 20° horizontally. Over the next few minutes until 22:15 UT, it changed colour through yellow and pink and extended upwards until it just brushed Cassiopeia. At 22:15 UT it disappeared.
At 22:38 UT the aurora reappeared at low altitude, slightly west of its previous starting point. It began as a broad green band, then a red streamer appeared at the centre at 22:31 UT and disappeared again at 22:34 UT.
At 22:39 UT, at an altitude of approximately 20° and to the east of Ursa Major, a bright red veil appeared. It turned blue at 22:40 UT and then displayed both red and blue colours together. At 22:47 UT it continued displaying red and blue colourations and began expanding upwards until it extended beyond Cassiopeia, with yellow, green and orange streamers which changed positions continually. At 22:54 UT this display disappeared.
At 22:55 UT, a bright green bolide appeared slightly north of west at an altitude of about 70°. The first explosion of the bolide occurred at approximately 55° above the horizon. A smaller second explosion occurred at an altitude of approximately 20°, leaving a trail which remained visible for about 38 seconds, which I estimated at magnitude -5 to -6. About four seconds after I saw the first explosion I heard a faint bang.
From 23:02 until 00:45 UT the aurora exhibited mainly red and yellow colours, fading in and out, with long streamers extending past the zenith at times.
I observed the following phenomena between approximately 22:30 and 24:00 UT:
Probably the most magnificent auroral display of the last 50 years occurred on the evening of Monday 13 March 1989. The evening started in a not very promising manner from an astronomical point of view, with a significant amount of patchy cloud. In fact, I had discounted the evening for observing and would probably have missed the aurora altogether if it had not been for a telephone call from a friend at around 7.30pm to inform me that there was an auroral display around Ursa Major. I immediately went outside to see the spectacle.
There was still some cloud around but it was mainly to the west and north and the sky was clear around Ursa Major, but there was no sign of the aurora - had I missed it? A five-day old Moon shone high in the west and my eyes were not fully dark adapted. After a few minutes, I could see a faint shaft of light running north-south, not over Ursa Major but almost due north at an altitude of 50°-70°. This first beam was pale and white but a few minutes later there appeared a much brighter beam to the west of it. The second beam exhibited a strong pink-purple colour and, while it was still glowing strongly, a third much broader and even brighter beam of the same colour appeared to the west of the Moon. The combined display was truly magnificent: even with the bright, five-day old Moon in the sky, the beams of light appeared bright and clear. Shortly after, patchy cloud began to form and obscure the view.
The next major display occurred around 9.00pm when a green arc stretched across the sky from north-east to north-west at an altitude of approximately 40° at its crest. The arc had a fuzzy, misty appearance, and because of this I mistook it initially for the edge of a cloud bank illuminated by the Moon. However, the green colour of the arc and some "curtain" structure in the north-east together with the fact that I could glimpse a few stars through it, revealed its true nature. The arc moved higher, peaking above Polaris before it began to fade and cloud once more came to obscure it. The cloud was clearly distinguishable from the aurora, appearing dark against the bright glowing sky caused by the latter!
The final display that I saw occurred between 10.30pm and 11.00pm. It consisted of the classic auroral "curtains" together with some beams of light. The curtains were visible at an altitude of 20° - 40°. They were primarily white, with a tinge of green. The beams of light appeared much higher in the sky (50° - 90° at least!) They were fainter than the purple shafts visible around 7.30pm but appeared red at high altitude turning to green towards the north at lower altitude. The beams were not static but faded and reappeared at different positions. Cloud obscured the display at around 11.00pm; this time the cloud looked dense and unlikely to disperse, so I gave up observing at this point.
This was the first time that I have definitely observed an aurora, and it was a magnificent and unforgettable spectacle!
In early 1980, Roy Cheesman, then chairman of OASI, gave a talk to the Ipswich and District Natural History Society about the great auroral display of 1938, possibly one of the most spectacular on record. During the talk, two members of the audience, Mr Walker and Mr Maxim, recalled that they had witnessed the event. Roy's description was as follows.
One of the most magnificent auroral displays ever witnessed in the UK occurred during the night of 25-26 January 1938. The display was witnessed over the whole of Europe as far south as Madeira and Bermuda. It was first seen in south-east England about 6.15pm and lasted until 1.00am. Meteorologists noted that the chief features of the display were the continual and rapid changes, the variety of auroral types and the splendour of the colour effects. The auroral display was accompanied by a magnetic storm of unusual intensity.
Just before 7.00pm, there was a development of brilliant red rays which people all over Britain mistook for some unknown great fire. The rays showed a remarkable variety of length, shape and width and changed in form from defined isolated rays to great bundles of different colours. Shortly thereafter, an even more spectacular phenomenon occurred: from the upper edge of the lower arc there suddenly flashed out in quick succession from east to west electrical discharges which continued for a quarter of an hour, culminating in a sort of mighty flame-lit canopy that hung nearly vertically from the heavens like a huge curtain. Later, the red rays reached a great altitude above the horizon, radiating from all parts of the auroral arc. At another period during the evening - which was starlit for most of the time - the red colour gave way to a greenish-white and greenish-yellow colour which brightened the heavens almost like dawn.