Most readers will probably know that the aurora was very visible over Scotland last night, including over Uist. This was the second time I have seen it, the first being a dozen years ago in Perth, when I got a glimpse of the typical ‘curtain being waved’ manifestation. Last night, I was alerted by Andy Stables’s Twitter, posting of an ‘extreme’ substorm underway, and dashed outside to catch a view of ‘STEVE’, the oddly-named aurora-like effect showing to the west as a ghostly, pale white, shape-shifting pillar, standing at 60 degrees to the horizon and looking something like an inverted horse’s tail, and well captured by Bob Moss from his garden on Skye.
Repeated trips outside later in the evening revealed a more traditional green aurora, showing as a thin arc low in the northern sky and, from our house, clearly spanning its full width from north-west to north-east; with occasional flares and pillars. This was of such a brightness that it was even visible from inside the house (with all the lights out!) – though clearly better outside, in context and with some association with the elements.
It wasn’t as visible as this lovely example (from further north) of the aurora set against the stones at Calanais on Lewis, or this, from Barra (from further south) but the cameras here are – quite correctly – letting a lot more light into the exposure, brightening the image and, therefore, also brightening the aurora. Here, in stark comparison, is my best effort, taken at 0107 on my handheld pocket camera, with the ISO cranked up as far as it will go (3200 – oooh!):
Hmm. (For the full experience, you might need to be in a darkened room, too.) That’s the bright lights of Balivanich to the right and the bright star in the top left corner is – I think – Capella in the Auriga constellation.
Clearly, the picture is not as ‘good’ as others; but, arguably, it is ‘fairer’ in that the relatively low ISO captures a better representation of the reality, of what the naked eye could actually see of the aurora at that point. It is – and here’s the probably unpopular bit of my view – somewhat uninteresting since it is not as good in real life as you can see on the internet. Clearly, photographs don’t lie – they can’t capture what is not there – but, equally clearly, they can misrepresent when they let so much light into the camera to capture an image which the human eye, because of its own limitations, struggles to see in as much detail. I can’t imagine a better night to see the aurora – an ‘extreme’ sub-storm, no clouds and a cold, late winter night offering apparently clear light (though today, which offers dreamily cloudless skies and a beautiful view for those on the morning flight, which has just gone over my head on its way into Balivanich, is a little hazy to the north and it may well have been the same last night). And, of course, there is no structure in my image from which to capture some foreground interest.
Yet, if this is as good as it gets, then people may well be better off viewing pictures of the aurora than chasing it. Still beautiful, and offering a perfect arc across the sky, but not as powerfully majestic as you might think and, therefore, somewhat underwhelming. A natural wonder that can’t fail to stir the emotions, but, perhaps, only more memorable in the human eye than a rainbow as a result of its rarity. That’s obviously not a view that will go down well with Visit Scotland, but better to be prepared for the reality, I think, than to be disappointed. Naturally, further into the Arctic Circle, where the storm’s strength will be better felt, the aurora will be stronger too and better viewable than the rather faint, but nevertheless obvious, green smudge on the sky that I saw last night. I could of course be entirely wrong – and that, for whatever reason, this was not as good as it gets.
Other than the aurora, it was, however, a wonderful night to be outside: the complete absence of cloud, coupled with the night being clear, and cold, as well as the lack of light pollution on Uist, meant that so many stars were visible that it was difficult to pick out even some of the major constellations; the plethora of stars putting on a uni-colour show that was, otherwise, as good and as absorbing of self as any firework display. I also saw two shooting stars (though I didn’t wish on them, obviously). If the lack of cloud cover continues, I’ll be out again tonight to take in all that breathtaking beauty, aurora or not.
‘STEVE’ was something else, though.