We are ridiculously lucky up here as we are one of the very few places in Ireland where the Northern Lights can be seen with the naked eye! Inishowen has enjoyed quite a bit of publicity from this nifty little trick of ours, and many of you will have seen amazing images of the Aurora on the Irish news, and generally in the media, such as these lovely pics by the very talented Bauke Roof. Bauke has caught some fantastic displays over the last few years and she recommends keeping an eye on this Aurora forecast site too.
Not only are we far north enough for this to be possible, but as we are a remote spot with few towns the skies are very, very dark. This is a huge help when you are looking for subtle changes in the night sky. And I must warn you – they often are subtle. Now I have seen the sky lit up in green and yellow – that does happen and will stop you in your tracks – but there is often a lot of lower level activity which you can’t always see with the naked eye. The amount of visual display is based on the strength of solar storm, and cloud cover of course. A Northern Lights display can range from full-blown Technicolor, or more subtle changes to the ‘background light’ of the sky, down to colours which you can only catch with a long-exposure photograph.
As people often come here hoping to catch a glimpse I thought I would take the time to put together a few tips; with the disclaimer of course that I am no expert!
1) Time of year
The Northern Lights can technically be seen year-round, it’s just that the darker it is the higher your chances are. I’m writing this in June, when we only have approximately four hours of darkness a night, so if you come light-hunting now you are already reducing your window of opportunity. The winter months have the longest darkest nights, and you want a clear night – this will unfortunately usually be a cold night too because of the lack of cloud cover! Any time from September to March you will have a lot of darkness to explore in.
2) Location, Location, Location!
To see a good display you want to pick somewhere away from light pollution – I recommend picking one of our more exposed headlands. Malin Head is obviously as far north as you can get so that’s a pretty good bet. Dunree and the Isle of Doagh are also both dark and have good views out over the sea.
3) Check the forecast
The weather forecast in Ireland can sometimes be seen as a running joke – and often the national forecast doesn’t really apply to the extremities of the country like us. But you may as well use all the tools at your disposal! There are two thing which you are looking for; one is the level of solar activity which is measured in Kp strength, and the other is cloud cover. Any weather forecast can help you with that but you may have to go to a more specialised site for help with Kp forecasts. For the north of Ireland apparently we need minimum Kp6 to see the lights. I would recommend keeping an eye on the Donegal Weather Channel for local information, and also this Service Aurora site – they aren’t updating over summer but many of their systems are linked up with Nasa and are automatically updating. This will also give you a good indication of the time of predicted activity – just make sure to change the Service Aurora times to GMT as they are Finnish.
4) Things to bring
Be realistic; you’ll quite likely be standing around in the middle of the night for hours waiting for something to happen. You want to be wrapped up like an onion – many, many layers! Wrap up well, bring a hot flask and, if you have one, something like a directors chair that you can relax on will make the whole thing more enjoyable.
If you have one then you should definitely take along a good camera that has the facility for long exposure shots – it may well catch things which you miss. Set it up on a tripod and see what happens! Binoculars are also recommended and are apparently better than a telescope for the Aurora.
5) Top Tips
Request a late check-out; if you are lucky and a whole display unfolds about 2am which keeps you glued to the sky for hours you don’t want to have to have to drag yourself out of bed a minute before it’s strictly necessary!
Avoid looking at any phone screens and, if you’re in a car, switch off the lights that come on automatically when you open and close the doors. It takes about five minutes to develop night vision and you want to preserve it.
Bring a star atlas – even if the lights don’t show you will see heaps of stars and it’s fun to learn what they are. Whether you can read the atlas in the dark is another question of course….
Happy hunting folks!