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“Beneath the Northern Lights” – account of an auroral display, April 2000

It’s now almost 9.30pm on Thursday August 5th, and as skywatchers in the UK and across Europe wait for night to fall, and cross their fingers for a display of the northern lights to be visible from where they live, I thought it might be fun to look back at the most amazing aurora I ever saw, waaaay back in 2000…

Here’s what I wrote after the Big Night. Not saying anything we might see tonight or during this solar activity could resemble this, but hey, maybe one day in the not too distant future…?

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“April 6th” had been underlined in my diary – several times, and in thick red pen – since the beginning of the year; the prospect of no less than three bright planets snuggling up close to a young crescent Moon was every bit as mouth-watering as the appearance of a bright comet, or an eclipse. But there was nothing to do but wait, and wait, and tick items off the checklist: buy the fast films, check the camera, click the mouse and run through the conjunction on my PC planetarium program again and again and again…

And, of course, keep an eye on the weather. The bottom line in amateur astronomy is that we’re all at the mercy of the chaotic, often downright vindictive behaviour of the world-wrapping ocean of air and water and dust and dirt we call an atmosphere. We’re fish, peering up at the stars through miles of murk. Ten supernovae could go off simultaneously, in an area of sky no bigger than the Moon, but if it was cloudy it wouldn’t matter, we’d see Nothing.

Unusually, and against all the odds for the north of the UK at this time of year, the weather was kind, and the three nights prior to the Big Day were all clear and frosty, allowing people who wanted to to watch the trio of planets edging closer to each other. The night before the Show I packed a rucksack with cameras, binoculars and a Walkman and headed up a hill outside my town, and at the top, under a gloriously cloud-free sky, I snapped frame after frame of the distant worlds shining above the distant Scottish hills, tiny chips of sapphire, amber and ruby flashing in a lavendar-hued sky.

But as I took the final frame I couldn’t help wondering if it had all peaked too early. Was this “it”? Would I – and everyone else – be cheated at the last moment?

After a marrow-chillingly cold, clear night the next day dawned bright and glorious, with just a few vague wisps of cloud in the sky, but how the hours dragged! By the time I left work I was a borderline nervous wreck; every feather of cloud which had appeared during the day had been cursed at, sneered at, ordered (Commander Sheridan style) to Get The Hell Out Of My Sky, but the Universe must have been feeling kind – or guilty at having denied British astronomers clear views of last August’s solar eclipse – because the sky remained clear, and as the Sun slid out of sight I began to believe that maybe, just maybe, I was going to get to see the Main Event. It was going to be a good night.

Talk about understatement…

8.20pm, and I was all set up – surrounded by tripod-mounted camera and my trusty 3″ reflector on the open, grassy field of my town’s riverside park – and looking west: the Moon was already visible – a fingernail clipping-thin silver crescent in the clear, indigo sky; Jupiter was there too, off to the right, a lone star shining as steadily as a lantern above the trees. No sign of Saturn yet, nor Mars, not even in my battered 12x50s, but the night was young…

As the minutes passed and the sky darkened Saturn and Mars both plinked into view, completing the family portrait, and over the next hour I was joined by several people, assorted drifters and dog-walkers who wandered over to ask, awkwardly, if they could “have a look”. Each went away smiling, clearly stunned by their unexpected views of lunar craters, Jupiter’s moons and Saturn’s rings… but as their dogs ran madly around me, barking and yapping at each other in the bronze dusklight I was happy to leave the eyepiece to them and stare westwards, marvelling at the naked eye beauty of the scene. It was humbling to see three worlds clustered around a scimitar-sharp Moon, …

… depressing too, to think that if the Polar Lander had landed safely on the Red Planet, the next time such a spectacle is visible from the Earth, in March 2020, astronauts might have been standing on Mars, looking back at Earth, seeing their Homeworld blazing like a shard of blue crystal in their own salmon-hued sky…

By 10.00pm the Moon and its planetary companions were almost lost from view, obscured by a low-lying veil of cloud, and with a deep sigh of satisfaction I packed up my gear and prepared to head home. But pausing mid-way across the footbridge, to take a final look at the setting Moon, I noticed how bright the northern sky looked.

Alarm bells started to ring, but only quietly. Ever since Christmas I’d been warning everyone in Cockermouth’s astronomical society to be on the look out for aurorae, nagging them to check the sky every clear night “just in case”, and standing there I couldn’t help wondering if something was happening. But there was no structure, no detail, no rays or curtains, it was just a background sheen, so I started walking again, curious but not too excited.

Besides, expecting an aurora after such a splendid evening was just plain greedy…!

Back home I set my telescope box and rucksack down and powered-up my PC, hoping for confirmation something interesting was happening. But the lines were busy, I couldn’t connect, so all I could do was look out the window – and yes, there was something there now, a vague hint of structure in the brightening glow…

There was only one way to find out: go and look. Grabbing my rucksack back up off the floor I fled out into the night again, heading towards my nearest reasonably dark sky site – a large, open field behind the local High School, a ten minute walk away. Every few steps I glanced up, and every glance suggested something was going on, until half-way I looked up and saw It – a tall, red beam, spearing up into the north-eastern sky like a broad searchlight… and another beside it… and were they moving slightly?

Still walking, but faster now, I passed some people that I knew, talking on a doorstep. “Have you ever seen the northern lights?” I asked them, slowing just a little as I passed. No, they said, one pointing out that you couldn’t see them “from here”, only the north pole… “No? Take a look,” I told him, pointing up at the sky from the centre of the street, “cos there they are…” I turned my back on him and carried on walking, smiling as I heard gasps of “Oh my god..!” from behind me…

The school field is wonderfully dark and deserted, and the school buildings effectively block-out the surrounding streetlights, so I tramped up to its centre feeling confident that if there was anything to see I’d have a good view; with a completely unobscured panoramic view from south west to east it was the ideal place for aurorawatching… and as I dropped my bag on the ground and looked up I knew something Big was happening.

There were tall red curtains on either side of me, north west and north east, and a faint hint of a striated green-white arc stretching across the sky between them, linking them. Still no movement, but definite colours and structure. Smiling, but still not willing to believe that an evening which had already been so wonderful could get any better, I set up my photographic gear, snapping the tripod legs into place with almost-military precision and speed, and with everything set I settled down for what I thought would be, at best, an hour or so of modest activity.

It took mere minutes for all thoughts of “modest” to fly away. By 10.30 half the sky was glowing, the stars all but obscured by ghostly auroral light. Only the stars in the southern part of the sky could be seen, and even then only up to an altitude of sixty degrees or so, there was so much activity that the glow extended beyond the zenith and continued on… It was like being beneath a weather front, having cloud above you but still being able to see clear blue sky “over there”… And as the minutes passed it just got better, and better, and better…

By 11.00pm, facing the north, I had pink-hued rays and curtains blazing on my left and right, reaching to unbelievable altitudes, sometimes appearing solid, other times breaking up into multiple features, but always bright and always beautiful. The sky between them was glowing a patchy, pale green, as if backlit, and every few minutes an arc would appear before me, stretching right across my field of view, and its upper surface would suddenly break up into countless spiky rays and beams before they too joined up into a slowly-rippling curtain… and all the time the red curtains grew brighter, and taller…

I’ll admit I was lost, completely lost, I’ve never experienced anything like that before in my life. I didn’t know which way to turn, I was like a child in an aquarium, or a zoo… head turning left then right, left then right again, lost in the wonders I was seeing, scared of missing something if I looked in any one direction for a moment too long. I took one photo after another, the clicks of my camera’s shutter echoing in the night, until eventually I felt that familiar “film fully wound” tug of resistance whilst winding-on, and I knew I had taken my last slide.

But it didn’t matter. The sky was still being airbrushed by a crazed cosmic artist, painted red and pink and green…

At one point I looked south, checking how far the auroral activity extended past the zenith, and that was when I became aware of movement above me. Looking up I expected to see clouds drifting in, but instead saw patches of grey-white and pale-green light appearing and disappearing almost directly overhead, their outlines phasing in and out of view like those poor doomed-from-the-start-by-their-reduniforms ensigns on Star Trek who fail to materialise properly in the transporter beam… the glows got brighter, the patches’ outlines grew sharper – and then they joined up, forming a narrow, vapourous arch above me! It was like an electric arc, connecting the two most active regions…

Looking up at it was like looking up at the underside of a bridge, the way it spanned the sky, and yet again I marvelled at the impossible beauty of it –

But then it became even more impossible: it started moving, shimmering, and I was lost all over again; as I watched, jaw hanging open in disbelief, I saw the arch rippling, material “flowing” from right to left. It was the most bizarre, most incredible thing, as if I was watching a Chinese banner fluttering and cracking right above my head..!

Then that too faded, and panning around I found that the rose-hued curtains had died down some too, and the background glow was much, much weaker. I wondered if maybe that was It.

But no, it was just a bluff, a fake ending worthy of Spielberg or Hitchcock. Because just as those white-collared scientists are fooled by the sudden departure of the small UFOs at the climax of Close Encounters, I had been fooled by the fading, and as I started to pack my camera and tripod away the sky began to brighten again… and just kept getting brighter, and brighter…

The red rays returned, and grew larger with every passing moment until they had been transformed into sharp-edged, sharply-slanting wedges of red, meeting overhead in a beautiful corona. my first ever. Between them the entire sky from west to east was shining a bright greenwhite, broken up into folded bands and curtains. Every star was obscured, obliterated by the aurora

I’ll admit it: as the corona brightened, and more rippling banners and curtains appeared above my head I felt like crying, it was so emotional. It was staggering, truly staggering, and I was reminded of the scene in CONTACT where Ellie Arroway is peering out of her capsule window, at the Galaxy stretched out beneath her, and all she can say is “I had no idea… I had no idea…” Until then I’d had no idea the Universe could offer such sheer, unselfish beauty.

In the end I succumbed to the moment; I stretched out my arms and turned round and round, slowly, a huge cheshire cat grin on my face as the sky above and around me began to burn. And as the brightness increased, and the colours deepened, I began to hear birds singing, fooled into thinking dawn had arrived, the most amazing thing… dogs began to bark all across town too, though whether they were alarmed by the appearance of the sky or by the exclaimations of their sky-gazing owners I’ll never know; all I know is that standing there, alone, on that school playing field, I felt dwarfed and humbled by the Universe.

It’s done that to me before, many times, during eclipses, Leonid meteor storms and comet apparitions, but I swear I have never, ever felt as small as I did that night; standing there, facing north but gazing at the zenith, to where all the red beams banners and curtains were touching, I felt like I was an ant standing on the deck of a mighty ocean-going galleon, gazing up in awe at the ship’s huge red sails, watching them billowing and rippling as they filled with the wind…

Eventually the activity began to subside, the colours dimmed and the beams and streamers and rays retreated, leaving behind just a mottled, background glow, and I packed up and fled; in my hurry to get out and see what was going on I hadn’t bothered to dress properly for the cold, so my feet and hands were freezing, my jacket damp too. I knew it was likely that the storm was over, but I knew I couldn’t just go home and give up, I’d have to stay out as long as possible – but not without warmer clothes, so I padded back home and changed, reaching my house just before 11.45. I managed to get online, and found my emailbox filled with messages from my fellow Society members alerting me – and all our Mailing List members – to the activity. It was a relief to know that I wasn’t the only one enjoying the show!

As the familiar “ta-dah!” system shut down chime of Windows 95 rang through my front room I chanced a peek out the window. Yes, the rays were back, but they were silvery-white now, not red, and there were lots more of them, taller, straighter, like multiple WW2 search-beams jabbing up at the sky in search of marauding bombers, so I made a coffee in Olympic Record time and went to stand in my yard for a while, enjoying the opportunity to relax. As I stood there, sipping from my cup, the night was perfectly silent but for the stunned whispers of my neighbours: “I thought you only ever see this from the north pole”, one was telling his companion, “look at that… wow, look…!” And as they sighed and oohed the beams above us quietly, patiently multiplied, almost as if breeding…

Eventually I began to detect a hint of colour to the east again, and, realising activity was increasing once again, knew I had to find a more open viewing location. With no film left I was able to travel light this time, so after pulling on heavy – and warmer! – boots I headed for my *other* dark sky site with just binoculars, gloves and hat, and after navigating my way along the dark footpaths and wooden bridges eventually reached “Site #2”, a small field which nestles in the bend of one of the two rivers which flow through my town. Although it doesn’t offer as much “open sky” as my prime site, it has compensations – a clear north view, and a stunning backdrop in the form of Cockermouth Castle, one of the oldest in the north of England, which has stood looking out across town for centuries. Mary Queen of Scots was once a guest, and standing there, looking up at the castle silhouetted against the auroral glow, I felt as if I was the one travelling back in time…

Midnight struck – or rather beeped, on my watch – and slowly but surely the sky began to brighten once more. Gradually the twin curtains of red began to reappear, jutting up into the sky to the west and east, joined at their bases by a multiple-rayed arch, and as the minutes fled by they grew higher and higher, brighter and brighter, sharper and sharper, angling sharply against the sky, coming closer, edging south towards me, and suddenly I wasn’t an ant on the deck of a galleon anymore, I was standing at the base of El Capitan, gazing up at its almost sheer vertical face looming above me –
I could only shake my head in disbelief as the rayed curtains seemed to expand widthways suddenly, almost explosively, and within a matter of moments they had touched and merged, and as the entire sky from west to east was transformed into a pink canvas, stretched tautly between two towering pillars of red I could appreciate how people had once believed such awesome displays signalled the end of the world…

Time seemed to slow down then, as if the Universe itself needed to take a deep breath and regain its strength. The whole sky from left to light was the colour of strawberries now, the most vivid orange-red I’ve ever seen, and sensing the display was pausing before reaching its climax I took a moment to study the landscape around me, freezing as many images in my mind as I could. Everything was touched by the unearthly light: the castle’s stone walls were tinged a faint pink; the slow-flowing waters of the river were red too, reflecting the blushing sky. Stretching out my trembling hand I saw my own skin was glowing pink…

Then, impossibly, the pillars stretched upwards again, pushing higher and higher until they touched, forming another corona, this one much brighter than the previous one, and standing beneath it, head tilted backwards, staring at the zenith in absolute awe, it was easy to believe that a red wormhole had opened up above the Earth and we were being drawn inexorably into its gaping maw…

But even then it wasn’t over; as the curtains retreated back towards the horizon, exhausted by their disply, the corona broke apart and was replaced with the zenithal “bridge” I had seen before, only this time it was a creamy pink colour, and rippled almost in time with my own thudding heartbeat. I watched it for several minutes, a banner of light flapping in the solar wind, until it faded away too, only to be replaced with multiple, silvery-white patches which flared in turn, from left to right, as if energy was flowing across the gaps between them, hop-scotching across the sky from east to west… at one point the largest, most central patch took on the rounded shape of a comet’s head, and streamers of ghostly mist stretched away behind it, then it coiled around on itself and vanished, relinquishing the sky to smaller, less dramatic patterns…

And then the inevitable Great Fade. Slowly the vivid colours bled away, the sharp lines blurred and the glow retreated; stars began to reappear, and the waters of the river darkened to oily black again. There were still some bands, and the arch was shooting several beams towards Polaris, but I knew it was Over. Packing up took just a few moments, and the walk back home through my deserted, sleeping town was quiet and slow, but I was walking on air every step.

I eventually reached home at 1.30, bleary-eyed, damp and chilled through, but didn’t care. And even though the sky was still shining beyond my window it was a token effort, a drawn-out farewell to those who were wending their own way home. I turned off the light and closed my eyes, but could still see the searchlight beams jabbing into the sky, piercing the very fabric of heaven…
 
That was two days ago, and I am still a little in shock, I think. It’s still hard to believe that the Universe can do that, can surround and batter and pummel us with such furious light and energy without snuffing us out of existence. How many people shared the Storm of 2000 with me I’ll never know, just as I’ll never know how many people slept in their beds, unaware of the Glory blazing just outside their window… just as I did in March 1989, when the last great Storm broke. That has haunted me for years, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve cursed myself for missing it.

But that ghost has been exorcised now, well and truly, and I know this: as long as I live I’ll remember standing there, watching the sky flaming above and around me, whispering to myself…

“I had no idea…”

(c) Stuart Atkinson April 8 2000

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7 Responses

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  6. Absoluter toller Artikel. Werde jetzt öfter die Seite besuchen Vielen Dank und Grüsse aus Bonn

  7. I was staying at a cottage on the outskirts of Keswick in April 2000. I woke up in the middle of the night and for some reason decided to look out of the west facing window. Even in my half-asleep state I was amazed to see the green whisps of the aurora. To this day, my one and only sighting.

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