A Strange Light

March 7, 2016
Walk Cycle Vote launch

Launching the We Walk, We Cycle, We Vote campaigners’ day with Professor Chris Oliver

It’s been a busy weekend, with a trip to Glasgow for the We Walk, We Cycle, We Vote training day – which was a blast but also a lot of organising (oh okay, someone else did the organising, I just fired off a few emails and tweets to spread the word and then shared in the praise when it all went off incredibly smoothly) – and so I was just enjoying being collapsed on the sofa with the woodburner going on Sunday evening when a post on Facebook suggested I should get outside and look north because the northern lights were visible in Bigtown which meant they should be even more visible out here.

We’ve been hoping to see the northern lights ever since we moved up here, but so far all we’ve managed has been a faint and somewhat ambiguous glow. Yesterday evening looked as if it wasn’t going to be much different – the sky to the north was definitely lighter than it should have been but it wasn’t the glowing dancing green lights that you see in the photographs of the aurora borealis. However it was a dark night and a clear sky, so we perservered (having gone back in and put on our coats and checked that nothing was boiling over on the stove) and this time we were rewarded with a definite greenish cast to the light and a few vertical streaks which came and went imperceptibly as we watched.

I’ve a feeling that the more spectacular photos – at least this far south – are partly down to long exposure times and look a little bit more impressive than what you actually see for yourself at the time. I did test this theory by trying to take a picture with my phone but it doesn’t actually have a long exposure setting, and I can tell you now that using the ‘fireworks mode’ doesn’t work…

Northern lights, as captured by a Samsung phone camera

I can’t believe I’m actually posting this, the worst photograph of the Northern Lights ever.

The stars, on the other hand, were something else. With no moon and a cold clear frosty night they glittered as we passed under the bare branches of the trees on our way back to house. We really don’t spend enough time appreciating the amazing dark skies we have, with or without any geomagnetic additions

sunny bigtown

Or, indeed, the strange light that has been appearing during daylight hours these last few days

Northern Enlightenment

June 23, 2015

… and now, as they say, for something completely different, although having said that, it did start on Twitter. Last night just as I was thinking of going to bed, I noticed a tweet warning me that a solar storm was on and there was a high likelihood of seeing the northern lights in the UK in about – ooh, well about that very moment. Perfect timing. It was a clear evening and we have little light pollution around us so I could just pop out the door and have a look for any mysterious glowing lights to the north of us.

Just one slight problem, which was that at 11pm it wasn’t particularly dark yet. Nor was it dark once I had wasted a bit more time on the internet, brushed my teeth, and nipped out for one more look at around 11:30. Nor was it much darker by the time I had sat on our garden wall in the quiet for a while and watched the bats flying around overhead and got a fright as an owl screeched from a nearby tree, and the other half came out to join me for a look. There certainly was a light in the sky to the north of us but it wasn’t all that mysterious, and if we were honest, it looked much more like the last glow of the setting sun than the aurora borealis, or at least how we imagined the aurora borealis might look, given that we’ve neither of us actually seen it. So we watched it for a bit to see if it might do something, and then we strolled up along the road to the top of the rise to get a better look at it not doing anything, waking up the neighbour’s horses which galloped around their field in the dusk, and then we stood for a while and looked at it not doing anything and agreed that we had no idea whether it was the after-effects of a sun storm, or just the after-effects of the sun setting. And by this time, it being almost midnight, we decided it could be what it liked, it was bedtime, and so we returned home.*

And I would have liked at this point to add something philosophical about how it was worth it anyway, northern lights or no northern lights, just to take advantage of the wonderful long days and lingering dusks of summer and to take a break from the dreaded internet and go out and experience the beauty of the evening for ourselves – but the midgies were being absolute murder and frankly, I was glad to get indoors.

* I note that I came to exactly the same conclusion three years ago. Stop me when all this repeating myself gets boring, won’t you?

Dark Sky at Night

July 16, 2012

So last night, just as I was thinking of going to bed, Twitter* was all of a-twitter with the news that it would be a good night for viewing the Northern Lights – with reports coming in of sightings as far south as Darlington. Now one of the advantages of living up here – not too far from the Dark Sky Park – is that we don’t get much light pollution on the whole so when the heavens are putting on a show, be it a meteorite shower, a close pass of the ISS or the aurora borealis, we can go outside into pitch darkness and marvel at it happening up there right above our heads, completely concealed from us by approximately half a mile of thick cloud. But last night the skies were, amazingly, clear and as I thought I’d never get the chance again I postponed my bedtime and went out to have a look.

Unfortunately the other amazing thing about living here in the summer are our long summer days which meant that at 11pm there was still way too much light in the sky to see anything at all. Muttering about light pollution I went back in, read for a bit, checked twitter (still all of a-twitter), read a bit more and staggered out again at almost midnight to check again. By this time it was still not quite dark in the sky and I spent some time looking northwards wondering if that faint hint of what-might-be-dusk wasn’t in fact some not very impressive Northern Lights until I finally decided that they could be out there in the heavens dancing the Fandango, for all I cared. I’m a creature of habit, you see, and have a way of turning into a very grumpy pumpkin if I’m kept up beyond my bedtime. And besides I had stuff to do in the morning that I needed to be fresh for. And so I sacrificed the opportunity to be moved and enthralled by this amazing phenomenon in return for my beauty sleep.

All of which made it a perfectly brilliant night for the smoke alarm in our bedroom to announce its desire for a new battery with an ear-splitting burst of sound at 5:30 in the morning. Sigh.

Fortunately there are others more patient than me
* And by ‘Twitter’ I mean the bits of twitter I follow which means that it’s made up of about 80% bikes, 5% writing stuff and the rest vaguely nerdy science-y sort of things involving jokes about statistics. Apparently there are other versions of Twitter that get excited about female celebrities not wearing any makeup. Each to their own, I suppose.