The Northern Lights

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The northern lights looking over the Beauly firth towards the Black Isle, Inverness-shire

After reports of a KP6 geomagnetic storm predicted to strike Scotland over the weekend, and clear skies on Sunday evening, I headed out after sunset to try and catch the northern lights.  This was a very early aurora excursion as nights have only just got dark enough for decent views of the night sky, let alone tracking down the faint and elusive northern lights.

My initial outing took my into the hills above Bunchrew where I bagged some lovely views of the summer Milky Way overhead.  Turning my attention north I noticed a faint arc of light on the horizon,  and sure enough some test shots picked up a vibrant band of purple and green auroral light.  However little structure was evident until I moved to lower elevations, reaching the Bunchrew shoreline just after 10.30pm.

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The Milky Way near Cygnus, framed between trees above Bunchrew.

From this new vantage, in the dark looking over the Beauly Firth,  the northern lights stood out much more clearly as distant columns of white light, slowly morphing and scintillating above the horizon.  Some of the images (attached) show nice structure and the suggestion of wave like movement.

As our nights get darker many more opportunities to view the aurora will present themselves.  The best strategy is to simply get out there as often as you can when it’s clear, and try and escape the boundaries of light polluted towns and cities.  Aurora forecasts should only be used as a guide as they’re seldom reliable.  Remember to look north and where possible find some nice low horizons in this direction.

Good luck and clear skies.

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The aurora is caused by the solar wind slamming into the earth’s atmosphere near the poles, ionising chemical elements which produce light at very specific quantised frequencies.

 

 

Solstice Sunsets

Video from the shores of Bunchrew looking over Ben Wyvis, panning from the north west to north east

The sunsets in the Highlands of Scotland are some of the best in the world when conditions are right, especially around the solstice when the setting Sun grazes just 8 degree below the northern horizon producing mesmerising night long sky glow.

On June 22nd I camped out at the Bunchrew shoreline with my daughter Violet and managed to capture some video and still images of the sunset looking north towards Ben Wyvis.  Footage captured around 10.45pm.

 

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Happy Summer Solstice

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Happy Solstice! Official time off the solstice today is at 3.54pm GMT when the north pole of the earth is maximally inclined towards the Sun.

In the north of Scotland we currently experience over 18 hours of daylight and no true night at all, as the Sun dips a mere -8 degrees below the horizon at its lowest point at 1.20am.

Official sunset time today is 22.20pm when the Sun will be at its greatest setting extremity towards the North.  This is where the term Solstice comes from, Sol -Sistere, or Sun Standstill.  The point when the Sun reaches its maximum declination in the sky or its furthest rising and setting points north of east and west on the horizon.

The situation is reversed for out friends in the Southern hemisphere of the planet who are currently marking the winter solstice.

Clear skies if you head out to take in the setting Sun!

Night Shining Clouds

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A few weeks either side of the summer solstice is the best time to observe ‘noctilucent’ or ‘night shining’ clouds.

These wispy collections of ice crystals are the highest clouds on Earth, located in the mesosphere up to 50 miles overhead. They’re too faint to be seen in daylight and best observed when the Sun is between -6 and -12 degrees below the horizon.

At the moment at Highland latitudes this gives you an approximate window between 11.30pm and 3am in the morning.

Clear skies.

Scotland – Land of the ‘almost’ Midnight Sun

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A stunning sunset captured over the Isle of Rum

In the north of Scotland we’re about four days away from losing all astronomical twilight and entering a period of sustained ‘nautical twilight’.

During this time the centre of the Sun’s disk never dips more than 12 degrees below the horizon, rendering our clear night skies a dark azure blue, with only the Moon, planets and brightest stars visible after midnight.

This will continue until mid July when astronomical twilight finally reappears.

Contrast this with London, where astronomical twilight continues right through mid summer, producing much darker night skies, but arguably less beautiful and prolonged sunsets.

Clear skies.

Inverness

We’re leaving astronomical twilight behind for several months here in the north of Scotland

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Significantly darker night skies persist through mid summer in southern England.  Here’s the contrasting data for London.

The Winter Sun at Clava Cairns

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Looking south west from inside the north east cairn at Clava

As a family we have a yearly tradition of heading out for a longish walk on Christmas Eve.  We usually park up somewhere remote in the van, make some bacon rolls then head out along a forest trail or up a local hill.  This year we decided to see if we could catch the setting Sun at Clava Cairns, a beautiful bronze age site located only a mile or so from Culloden battlefield near Inverness.

During my astronomy outreach I’ve given quite a few talks referencing Clava Cairns in relation to the fascinating subject of ancient astronomy.  Often wild speculations are made about many prehistoric sites, in particular Stonehenge, with dubious claims of alignments to stellar constellations or complex planetary cycles.  But one thing is almost universally agreed by archaeologists and astronomers alike, that many of these ancient structures were configured to mark the passage of the solar year.

In Clava’s case, both main passage cairns have mid winter setting sun alignments facing towards the south west, such that for several days either end of the shortest day, the light from the setting Sun will shine down the central passage and light up the interior of the structure.

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Sun rays striking the winter solstice aligned passage.

Of course it’s one thing to read second hand accounts of this phenomena, and quite another to experience them first hand.  As luck would have it, when we approached the site around 3.30pm the Sun was clearly visible and just setting in the south west, allowing us to witness this amazing spectacle and to capture some photographs.

From inside the north east cairn, closest to the main entrance of the site, the passage was already brightly washed over with sunlight.  I was curious to determine if the sun’s position was low enough to light the passage when it was originally covered over (several thousand years ago), so crouched down within the passage to take some of my shots.  Sure enough, the rays of the Sun could be directly sighted down the camera lens.

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My daughter Violet standing in the sunlight directed down the main passage of the north east cairn.

The motivation for the astronomical alignment of these structures is still the topic of heated debate amongst historians and archaeologists, but one thing residents of the north of Scotland can appreciate first hand is the depressingly short days and long hard winters we experience at this time of year.  Some sort of large scale and perhaps communal confirmation that the south westerly extreme of the winter sunset (and its associated low midday elevation) had been reached would have been very reassuring to early agricultural societies.

It’s this concept of the Sun both halting its low elevation in the south at midday and the most southern extreme of its setting and rising positions that gives rise to the word Solstice – ‘sol ‘ sistere’ meaning Sun standstill.  The reverse applies during mid summer when the sun rises and sets at its most extreme positions to the north of east and west, and reaches its highest elevation at midday.

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The two main passage cairns at Clava have south westerly mid winter sunset alignments.

There are some researchers who go much further, and point to alignments between the stones at Clava Cairns with the Celtic cross quarter days and the more complex dynamics of major and minor lunar standstills.  Whilst these may be true it should also be remembered that it only takes two points to make a straight line!  As ever we need to be cautious with our wish to believe, and back everything up, where possible, with evidence.