Aurora Borealis: Northern Ireland Northern Lights show returns

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Media caption,

David Costley captured timelapse footage of the Aurora Borealis

The Aurora Borealis - better known as the Northern Lights - have once again been providing a light show above the skies of Northern Ireland.

Spectacular photographs of the solar phenomenon have been shared around the world, but how do you know when it's going to appear and how do you capture it for posterity?

Grabbing that perfect shot of the lights is a combination of luck, timing and a bit of know-how, according to David Costley, a keen amateur photographer who took a time-lapse video of the skies above the medieval ruins of Dunluce Castle on the north coast of County Antrim.

"It's really about timing, making sure the clouds are clear and that there's no light pollution," he says.

"That's why Dunluce is such a good place - you've got a direct view north and it's good to get that clear line of sight."

Image source, Chris Ibbotson
Image caption,
Chris Ibbotson took this photo of Mussenden Temple against the backdrop of the Aurora Borealis

He says he has seen people take good shots of the lights using just their mobile phone camera, but better equipment is needed to get the best results.

"In terms of equipment, any DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) camera will do with eight-second exposure settings to get the nice detailed structures in the aurora," he says.

"Because it's moving, if you have any longer exposure it all becomes one big green blur so it's good to get a short exposure and put the sensitivity settings up as high as you can."

Image source, Eoin McConnell
Image caption,
Eoin McConnell took this picture of photographers taking shots of the Northern Lights at Mussenden Temple

Images of the light show along the north coast have travelled around the world, according to Eoin McConnell, a tourism ranger who was one of many amateur photographers chasing a glimpse of the aurora.

"The photos have gone mad on the internet, which is good as it promotes tourism here which is why I do it - Discover NI and Tourism Ireland retweeted and shared them so they have gone worldwide," he says.

"You need a tripod to take aurora photos as you can't hold a camera steady enough for the long exposure.

"You also need plenty of practice, as night photography is quite tricky - it's hard to focus on anything in the dark."

Image source, Maureen Kane
Image caption,
Aurora Borealis over Dunluce Castle, photographed by Maureen Kane

It's not just the hardened aurora chasers who managed to get great photos of the Northern Lights at Dunluce Castle, according to Maureen Kane, who says she has only begun learning about night photography.

"When the lights started to dance, so did I - it was just amazing to watch," she says.

How the Aurora Borealis occurs

Image source, SPL

The Northern Lights are caused by the interaction of the solar wind - a stream of charged particles escaping the Sun - and our planet's magnetic field and atmosphere. Find out more

While the phenomenon is not a new one, social media and websites devoted to forecasting its intermittent appearances have made it easier than ever before to experience the light show close to home.

Ronan McLaughlin says he set up the Aurora Alert Ireland Twitter account (@Aurora_ireland) because there was a lot of misinformation on the internet.

A veteran aurora-spotter, he is from the most northerly point in Ireland, Malin Head in County Donegal, and first saw the lights in 1988 when he was aged 12.

"I remember when I wrote an article in 1994 for a magazine my father was involved in, and when I mentioned that you could see the Northern Lights in Malin Head, a few people who had no knowledge of the area actually giggled," he says.

Image source, Ken Cox
Image caption,
This photo was taken at Ballintoy by Ken Cox
Image source, Sharon Cuatriz
Image caption,
Sharon Cuatriz took this photo at Dunluce Castle

"With the aurora alert, I wanted to take all the information I'd built up over the years to make a substantial forecast that was going to be particular to Ireland, taking into consideration cloud cover, humidity, rain forecast and looking at all the various weather satellite feeds.

"I try to piece all this together to be able to say, 'yes this is going to happen'.

"There is a certain amount of fluke behind it, but the one thing I say to people is that they need to have a little bit of patience."

Mr McLaughlin says it's important to let your eyes adjust to the darkness.

"I've often had people messaging me to say they're sitting in their car with the headlights on but they can't see it," he says.

"I tell them, 'yes it's there - get out of the car, turn all the lights off, get as dark as you possibly can, let your eyes adjust for half an hour and then you'll see it."

Image source, Linda Hutchinson
Image caption,
Linda Hutchinson says it was well worth the trip from Newtownards for the light show at Ballintoy

He says it's not just the north coast where the lights are visible, as he witnessed Wednesday night's show from Cobh, in County Cork at the southern end of the Republic of Ireland.

"As long as you're looking north, you could see it anywhere in Ireland but the important thing is get out of the big towns," he says.

"The vast majority of big light shows people will see are over by Bangor in County Down, up along the Antrim coast, anywhere from Rathlin Island right across to Tory Island and Slieve League in County Donegal."

So what about the chances of seeing a repeat showing of the lights on Thursday night?

According to BBC NI weather forecaster Cecilia Daly, "conditions tonight won't be as good in terms of cloud cover but some clear skies are likely, especially towards the north coast".

Image source, Michael Bradley
Image caption,
Another view of the Aurora Borealis at Dunluce Castle, photographed by Michael Bradley
Image source, David Costey
Image caption,
The orange lights from Portrush show why it is important to get into darker areas to see the aurora, says David Costley

As awareness spreads of frequent visits by the Northern Lights, the prime spots for aurora-spotting have become increasingly popular.

David Costley says that when he took his time-lapse video at Dunluce Castle, "the car park was absolutely packed with people and everyone was crawling all over the castle trying to find the best spot to take pictures".

"It was good to talk to people, see what settings they use and swap information," he says.

"I only started shooting the aurora last year - the first time I heard about it I thought 'ah great, it's a once in a lifetime event' but then after a couple of months I realised it happens quite a lot but many people just don't know about it."

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