Under Donegal’s dark skies: Chasing the Northern Lights

Chasing the Northern Lights up at Ireland’s north coast has become a pursuit of passion for Donegal’s photographic community. While most of us have only recently become aware that they are visible from Ireland, they have always been there.

Due to a burst in the sun’s activity - the sun has a‘heartbeat’ and every 11 years it beats (known as the solar cycle) - which we are seeing the tail end of now, we have experienced an increase in the regularity we see the phenomena in Ireland.

This has produced a huge catalogue of stunning skyscape photographs ‘lighting up’ the Internet and social media.
One such photographer, whose work capturing the dark skies over Donegal has made national news, is Adam Rory Porter.

Adam is a native of Buncrana, born and bred, as he says and apart from a stint studying in Dublin, has lived all his life in the wilds of Donegal. He is a Donegal man through and through and it’s evident in his work. Adam has a searing passion for the beauty of the Donegal landscape.

Through wind, rain, hail and shine Adam battles the elements to get out an capture the rugged beauty of the Donegal landscape. It’s a sometimes a treacherous place, with wildly unpredictable weather, but when she does decide to part the curtains of cloud and let the sun through, there is a wild beauty that is utterly unique and enchanting.

“Donegal is beautiful, rugged… it’s secretive. It’s an unspoilt landscape and only beginning to be discovered by tourists. The Wild Atlantic Way has really helped in that regard. You see a lot more tourists around even off season.”

“The weather in Donegal is wildly unpredictable, so we could hear there’s a storm coming in, but then you get a break in the clouds and it’s beautiful. We get a lot of good weather too and when you do, there’s nowhere better.”
“There can be treacherous weather conditions, that’s when you need a good vehicle, to keep you safe, keep you warm and keep you on track.
Some of the roads are very rough and off the main roads, that’s when a car like the Audi A6 Avant with quattro permanent all-wheel drive comes into its own, getting there safely is very important.”

The Audi A6 Avant with quattro technology is equipped to handle anything the Donegal landscape can throw at it. It's permanent all-wheel drive system divides power between the front and back wheels for greater traction and control on even slippy roads and surfaces.

Kinnagoe Bay Aurora and Milky Way - All Rights Reserved Adam Rory Porter

Why Audi quattro?

quattro - Audi's permanent all-wheel drive system
Greater traction, greater safety, greater dynamism.
The quattro permanent all-wheel-drive system splits drive power between the front and rear wheels to optimum effect. This enables an Audi fitted with quattro to keep making safe progress with ease in situations where two-wheel-drive vehicles no longer have any forward traction, such as on slippery surfaces or loose terrain.

How quattro works
The quattro drive system employed in most Audi models is based on a self-locking centre differential. The principle is as simple as it is ingenious: if the wheels on one axle lose grip and threaten to spin, it automatically redirects the drive power to the other axle. With a basic distribution of 40:60, 40 percent of the power reaches the road via the front wheels and 60 percent via the rear. To counter any wheel slip that occurs, the system can direct up to 70 percent of the drive power to the front or up to 85 percent to the rear. The benefits of this are more grip when accelerating and greater safety thanks to the exceptional road holding.

Malin Head Aurora Borealis - Northern Lights - All Rights Reserved Adam Rory Porter

They say Donegal is our Alaska, somewhat cut off from the rest of the Republic, it has remained relatively free and unscathed by the influences of Europe and Globalisation, it’s like a time capsule of Irish culture. It’s a wonderful subject for Adam to photograph.

Take the Northern Lights. The cosmic spectacular has remained a well-kept secret in Donegal until recently.

“It’s always been there and talking about it among the older generation it was common around Buncrana and Malin Head, it was just part of the night sky. There was no light pollution then and the locals thought nothing of it”.

We’re all familiar with the name Aurora Borealis, which means ‘False Dawn’ in Latin. However, locals of the Orkney Islands in Northern Scotland have their own name for them in Scots Gaelic. ‘Na Fir-Chlis’, means the lively ones, or nimble ones. According to legend, the ‘Nimble Ones’ are not a benign force but fight each other over the night sky staining the morning moss blood red.

Adam’s imagination was captured by the Aurora when, back in 2011, he set out with his camera club to Malin Head not really knowing what to expect.
“It was one of those stormy nights when we were searching for shelter and we caught sight of it. There was just a little break in the clouds and looking back at the photos it was just a little hint of green, but it was so exciting at the time. That kicked it all off, got people talking and researching in the locality,” says Adam.
It stirred a passion in Adam and led to many, many nights on the winding roads and byroads of Donegal in the wee hours of the night under a dark sky. Setting up a camera in the middle of the night in some of Ireland’s most remote areas may not be to everyone’s liking, but for Adam it is pure relaxation.

“It’s a peaceful landscape, incredibly peaceful. It’s where I relax. When you’re out on these roads under dark skies and there’s absolutely no one around, you get out and set up your equipment and it’s so peaceful and beautiful,” he says.

There’s a whole community of photographers and stargazers in Donegal who rely on various scientific outlets who can predict the sun’s activity and the likelihood of the aurora making an appearance. Twitter is an excellent source to get real time information on solar activity.

“The skies are being monitored all the time so you usually get a prediction that there’s a projection of material. You may get this material that causes the aurora but the earth’s magnetic field plays a part, if it’s puling north it pulls the particles away from us and we won’t see it, but if it’s pulling south then you’ll have a great chance."

“The trick is to persevere. Sometimes you have a really strong prediction, there’s loads of activity and people travel up from all over the country and there’s a cloudy sky. Then the earth’s magnetic field comes into play. It’s easier to go to Scandinavia and see them, but we still have a pretty good chance of seeing them here. It’s a lot cheaper to see them here than if you go there.

Aurora Borealis - The False Dawn
Na Fir-Chlis - the lively ones, the nimble ones.

Malin Head - Northern Lights Aurora - All Rights Reserved Adam Rory Porter

Malin Head Aurora Borealis Northern Lights - All Rights Reserved Adam Rory Porter

The Aurora Borealis flaring over Ireland taken from the International Space Station on the Winter Solstice 21st December 2015.  NASA/ISS

The Aurora Borealis flaring over Ireland taken from the International Space Station on the Winter Solstice 21st December 2015. NASA/ISS

What causes the Aurora Borealis?
The Northern Lights are caused when Solar Wind, a stream of charged particles released by the Sun’s upper atmosphere, causes electrons to collide with oxygen and nitrogen atoms in Earth’s upper atmosphere. The electrons come from the Earth’s magnetic field and causes them to reach a high energy state. When they ‘cool’ or return to a low energy state they release a photon: light, which we perceive as the Aurora Borealis.

Basically the sky is dancing, from whites to greens to reds, when it’s very intense along the edge and it’s so vast, it fills the horizon. It’s a beautiful thing to see.

Adam Rory Porter

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