Aurora Borealis in Devon

by | 26 Mar, 2023 | Astronomy, Nature, Photography | 0 comments

Having seen the Aurora Borealis from the Devon-Dorset border last month, it seems almost impossible that I’ve seen it from Devon again. Yet, on the 23rd – 24th of March 2023, the Earth was struck by a geomagnetic storm so strong it caused bright aurorae to ripple through the atmosphere. It was even visible, I’m reliably told, from as far south as Phoenix, Arizona. 

I had no idea it was going to be such a memorable night. When I went out, through the garden and into the soggy adjacent field, Venus looking like a spotlight in the west, the aurora forecasting apps on my phone were only suggesting an amber level of disturbance. Worth a punt, especially as the clouds had finally cleared and the waxing crescent Moon had already set, but hardly worth an extended trip in the car to a picturesque location. I expected to take a few photographs, see nothing (which is the way it usually goes) then head back home to bed.

But, after walking for only a minute, I looked over my shoulder towards the house and could see what looked like tall, faint, white beams in the sky. I squinted at them, wondering if they were perhaps vertical cirrus clouds lit by light pollution, but they seemed to be moving; fading in and out of view. 

Intrigued, I set my camera on the tripod and took a photograph. I hadn’t given a thought to composition, but I knew I was facing north-north-east. I left the shutter open for fifteen-seconds, looked at the display screen and let out an exuberant scream into the darkness. The Northern Lights were dancing right above our house. They were high enough in the sky to reach over the wooded hill to the north (the same hill which sometimes obscures noctilucent clouds in the summer) and bright enough to outcompete the glow of light pollution coming from Chard.

 Aurora 23rd March 2023 in East Devon. Photograph by Kerrie Ann Gardner.

If you live somewhere further north, this might not seem like such a big deal. But remember, I’m based in Devon, a mere six miles from the English Channel as the crow flies, at about 50º north. Big auroral displays like this do not happen down this way very often. Also, as I wrote in a recent piece about the aurora I saw in February, naked eye views of the aurora this far south are extremely rare. To have been able to see the aurora within a few minutes of heading outside, before my eyes had truly adjusted to the darkness (which takes a good twenty minutes) highlights how powerful this solar storm was. It was the strongest since June 2015, almost eight years ago. 

As there seemed to be a lull in activity, I rushed back to the house to tell my partner, send a tweet to alert my followers (I can’t do this when I’m out as I don’t have access to the internet) and check the aurora apps on my phone. Although they were still forecasting amber levels of activity (as opposed to red, which means storm level) I went back for another try. 

Around midnight, just before my efforts were thwarted by a rain shower, the lights picked up again, stretching upwards and reaching into the north-west. As I watched I could see, without the need of the camera, red patches of light floating above a large Ash tree in front of me and faint pillars of white-ish light. These shapes and colours came and went like mist on a dew-dappled field. I have tried to edit the below photo to faithfully look how the aurora appeared to my eyes, although it’s difficult to truly replicate it as the lights are constantly moving. 

Naked eye view of Aurora Borealis. Photograph by Kerrie Ann Gardner

With my camera, the aurora appeared so vivid, green below with neon reds and brilliant cerise above, that I had to slightly decrease the colours when editing this photograph. 

Aurora Borealis from Devon, UK 23rd -24th March 2023. Photograph by Kerrie Ann Gardner

A bright, slow meteor fell towards the western horizon, and a Roe deer cantered along the nearby hedgerow, stopping to bark at me before stomping off. Across the fields, a Vixen cried, and two more meteors fell, heading north, one a minute after the other. The brightest of the two can be seen in the top right of the photograph below.

Meteor and faint Aurora Borealis from Devon 24th March 2023. Photograph by Kerrie Ann Gardner.

When the rain came, I took shelter in a barn near our house. As I entered, I watched the spirit-like form of a Barn Owl float away. Managing to connect to the internet, I checked the aurora apps again. This time they had updated the forecast to red (storm level) with the My Aurora Forecast app showing a Kp index of 8, the highest I have ever seen it go (it ranges from 1 to 9) meaning that an intense geomagnetic storm was under way, one which would likely produce ‘bright, dynamic and colourful aurorae’ with ‘aurora seen around the 50º latitude.’

I started to flag at about 1.15am, and as the activity seemed to be diminishing and more clouds were arriving, I packed up and went to bed, stomach dancing with excitement. But, had I stayed out longer, I would have been treated to another burst of intense activity. I know this because Tim White, a fantastic photographer who lives close by, did stay out, and was rewarded for his efforts by multicoloured aurora at around 3am. His pictures can be seen here. 

The next day, having uploaded one of my aurora images onto Twitter (which was used in this BBC report) I was asked by BBC Radio Devon to speak to Pippa Quelch about the display. I was a little sleep deprived, so I hope I made sense, and frustratingly I did struggle to answer one of her questions. Pippa asked me why it is that aurora often seems more green than red. I knew that gases in our atmosphere give off different colours when they’re excited by solar activity, but I couldn’t definitively answer her question and, being a live recording, I had to stumble my way through. 

Having now read about it, I realise the reason the aurora often appears green is because most solar particles collide with our atmosphere at an altitude of 60 to 150 miles. At these heights, there is a high concentration of oxygen which, when excited, appears green. Consequently, the majority of our auroral displays are predominately green. However, when particularly intense solar activity collides with the Earth’s atmosphere, gases at lower and higher levels also get excited. At an altitude of 60 miles or less, nitrogen causes the aurora to show as blues and purples, whereas above 150 miles, less concentrated oxygen is excited at a higher frequency, causing it to appear red. So, the more intense the geomagnetic storm, the more colours we can see. 

For a time-lapse of the burst of activity seen around midnight, please see Will Gater’s wonderful video, which was taken in Somerset.

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