Aurora for a northern night

The buzz started soon after it got dark with Aurora alerts coming in suggesting it should be visible from Shetland. It was partly cloudy and there had been some snow. Wait. Check all the alerting and information services. Yes, activity levels were high enough, the solar wind was blowing. Just need clear skies! It snowed – quite hard and for quite a while but, as it turned out, not to any great depth – it was mostly haily puckles as they say here.

Then it came, first word of aurora sighted in Shetland! I already had my camera, tripod and snacks ready to go and looked out to the north, shielding my eyes against the glare of the town’s streetlights. There! A clearly visible green shape in the sky to the north over Staney Hill. Usually in town I cannot discern colour because of the orange glow of the streetlights and general light pollution but tonight I was sure could see green – fantastic. No more hesitation – aurora, snow; what more did I need to create some photos? Well, the ability to get out of town for one! I was distinctly nervous about the snow on the road – my car isn’t best suited to such challenges.

Gingerly, I drove north and was relieved to see that my car managed the steep hill out of town and I had no difficulties down the other side or on the other hills past Burradale and Tingwall. As I continued north I kept my eye on the other side of the road, checking there remained vehicle tracks and a visible route for my journey back later; the further from town I got the less obvious these became until there was just one track left.

I stopped and turned the car lights off. Wow! As my eyes adjusted the glow came alive, moving and changing shape at quite a speed. Shafts pierced upwards into the twinkling, star-filled vastness of the sky above. Pulses, like huge lumpy waves, raced across the sky one after another at what seemed like millions of miles an hour. There was an arc but it was accomapanied by flowing curtains, the whole display tilted maybe 10° up from the horizontal at the left (west) side. I imagined I saw variations in the colour but realistically it was more likely to be variations in intensity; I don’t think the display was bright enough for the human eye to distinguish colour. However, the camera LCD screen confirmed that there was green and purple visible and this was the most colourful display I have seen since December 2006, when I saw green, red, blue and purple together in the display.

Tonight’s show was more subtle, mostly green with light purple dancing along the top of the curtains. The other colour in the sky was the dreaded light pollution, reflecting off the clouds, even out here 10 miles or so from Lerwick. Apart from the millions of stars there was one other source of light – the moon, which limited visibility of the aurora to the west and I took advantage of passing clouds and a hand cement mixer to partially block its glare. Fortunately it was still less than a quarter full but it’s amazing how bright it is, even at that.

I was aware that the clouds were amassing behind me to the south and had already noted that the further north I had travelled the less snow there was on the ground. After about an hour and a half – by which time I was thouroughly frozen – I decided I had better head back. I wanted to carry on looking for suitable landscape backdrops but decided it was probably too risky to go down any side roads and I convinced myself the display was subsiding anyway – which I think it really was. More to the point I was becoming worried about getting back up the hills towards town if it snowed any more. As it turned out, no sooner had I packed up and set off than the snow started and it developed into quite a heavy shower, which limited visbility and meant I had to drive quite slowly. Fortunately though it was still fairly small and dry flakes and didn’t greatly affect traction or build up to any depth by the time I got back home. Once there I checked my photos and was delighted to have captured some of the essence of the display, shown below with some more over on

One Response to “Aurora for a northern night”

  1. Paula Says:

    What a long descriptive story.

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