March 6th 2016, Humberside Airport

The following photographs were obtained from the Northern Lights flight that took place from Humberside Airport on the 6th of March 2016.

An additional note about this active auroral display...

The Northern Lights flight that flew from Humberside airport on March 6th was fortunate enough to coincide with some strong auroral activity. The auroral oval on this occasion increased in size and moved far enough to the south to allow many aurora chasers on the ground an opportunity to see the Aurora Borealis from most of mainland UK.

Looking at some of the photos put up around the internet and on news clips of what people captured from the ground raises the question - why was our view different from the plane. The photos from the ground showed more vivid colours and more characteristic ray-like structures.

Well to answer the colour issue, it is possible to see colour in the aurora but it needs to be bright to deliver it. The most common colour is a lime green 'wash' effect although from directly under the auroral display - when you'd be at your closest to the aurora, it can also appear with a more defined greenish hue. The visibility of the reds and blues that are sometimes reported depends on the presence of red and blue in the aurora.

Many of the ground based shots do show these distinct colours along with the classic rayed structure in the auroral curtain. Looking at the photographs I took on the trip, it was evident that the reds were only visible to the camera on the northbound leg of the flight. You can see these colours showing strongly in the first couple of shots below. I believe that by the time we got on station, the reds, blues and classic rays seen in the ground photographs had faded, leaving a more broken display, with pockets of weakly green aurora seen across the entire sky.

Basically, the aurora had changed shape from it's earlier more classic form. The green colour photographed from the UK is interesting too because being that much closer to the display, the visual colours we saw would have been stronger (because the aurora would have been brighter) for us.

Photographing the aurora from a plane has its challenges (although we have seen some brilliant shots from the March 6th flight taken by passengers). One of the requirements is to use a high sensitivity to capture the display and prevent too much blurring which would occur for long exposures. A high ISO will often produce a more washed out image than one taken at a lower setting. Also, on the ground, it's possible to place a camera on a tripod, so giving a much steadier platform to work from. A lower ISO setting combined with a more stable platform can help produce a more colourful end result. However, visually, being farther from the aurora itself, the colours would have been weaker from the UK mainland than they would have done from the air.

Another variant is the way an image is processed. Upping the saturation in an editor such as Photoshop can help to emphasise the colours further. In the shots presented here on Auroraflights, I try to keep the images as close to the raw shot that was captured on the camera chip without further colour enhancement.

As an example of this, the three images shown below depict one of the photographs adjusted to simulate the visual experience and over-processed to artificially show the colours off better. The middle image shows it more-or-less as it came out of my camera.



So the remaining questions to answer are...

Is it ever possible to see the colours more strongly than we did on the Humberside flight?

The answer to this is absolutely, yes. I've seen them myself and had many passengers report them too. The colours tend to be strongest when the lower altitude pink, which occurs due to the excitation of molecular nitrogen, kicks in. This pink is far more obvious than the fainter red which occurs at the top of the aurora. When pink appears, this is usually a mark of a very active and bright aurora. Consequently the green can appear stronger in this instance too.

Did we fly too late to catch a decent display?

Not at all. It's not possible to predict with any accuracy the structure and colour of an aurora display. We get what the aurora happens to be delivering at the time. As an example, our last flight of the spring 2016 season was from Glasgow Airport. On this occasion, the inbound flight which we were supposed to board was delayed due to foggy conditions further south. The net result was that we flew 1 hour later than planned. Despite a lot of space-weather activity, the Bz for this display (11 March) was not favourable, being heavily north. Just as we started out last turn, the Bz turned south for a short period of time and a fine aurora was seen. Looking back at the activity levels after the flight, our delay meant that we were lucky enough to catch the only window of strong activity for the aurora that night. In that instance, if we'd have gone up on time, we'd have missed the display!

I hope you enjoy the photos,

Pete Lawrence




Image ref: 2016-03-06_HUY_7182 by Pete Lawrence
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Image ref: 2016-03-06_HUY_7244 by Pete Lawrence
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Image ref: 2016-03-06_HUY_7370 by Pete Lawrence
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Image ref: 2016-03-06_HUY_7384 by Pete Lawrence
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Image ref: 2016-03-06_HUY_7498 by Pete Lawrence
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Image ref: 2016-03-06_HUY_7505 by Pete Lawrence
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Image ref: 2016-03-06_HUY_7524 by Pete Lawrence
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Image ref: 2016-03-06_HUY_7578 by Pete Lawrence
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Image ref: 2016-03-06_HUY_7621 by Pete Lawrence
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Image ref: 2016-03-06_HUY_7751 (The Aurora Visible to the South!) by Pete Lawrence
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Image ref: 2016-03-06_HUY_7843 by Pete Lawrence
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Image ref: 2016-03-06_HUY_7858 by Pete Lawrence
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Image ref: 2016-03-06_HUY_7880 by Pete Lawrence
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Image ref: 2016-03-06_HUY_7895 by Pete Lawrence
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Image ref: 2016-03-06_HUY_7925 by Pete Lawrence
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Image ref: 2016-03-06_HUY_7994 by Pete Lawrence
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Image ref: 2016-03-06_HUY_8100 by Pete Lawrence
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Image ref: 2016-03-06_HUY_8137 by Pete Lawrence
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Image ref: 2016-03-06_HUY_8144 by Pete Lawrence
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