Friday, 10 January 2014

Chasing rainbows

Hello, webby mates,

Last night we went on a wild goose chase. Mark, the kids and I went out chasing rainbows at night - the Northern Lights. We knew it was a slim chance, we knew the kids would be horrid the next morning but we did it anyway and it's one of the things I love about our family.

About 5 o'clock yesterday afternoon there were talks of the Northern Lights being visible in Britain. Not the North of Scotland, but right down into England and North Wales as well. I know newspapers like to whip up a bit of drama when there is only a slight possibility of something happening, so I tried to lower my expectations. It didn't work. Even a whisper of the aurora had me bouncing on my toes with excitement.

I once almost saw the lights in Canada as a kid. We lived in Southern Ontario - about the same latitude as Milan - so in 15 years my parents only saw the aurora borealis twice. The first time I was a toddler. The second time I was about 13. My parents woke me up to see but I was so groggy with deep sleep I couldn't focus and fell back into my slumber without registering the sight at all. I have regretted it ever since. Like many people I have promised myself that one day I will finally see them. Whatever it takes.

Over the past few days the sun had thrown a strop. This solar activity resulted in a coronal mass ejection, or CME. This meant that electromagnetic particles and a plasma of photons and electrons were sent out into the solar system. As a CME hits Earth it can cause a display of the aurora to be seen beyond its usual boundaries.  Add to this the fact that we're in the peak of the 11 year aurora cycle and there was cause for cautious optimism. Or "Northern Lights To Be Visible In Cotswolds" if you are a headline writer.

Obviously light pollution and cloud cover would  prevent us from seeing the lights even if they reached England. However, if I'm prepared to save up to go to Scandinavia to see the lights, getting clear of the city is nothing. It was a school night, so as responsible parents we should consider the effect of a midnight jaunt on the children's education.  On the other hand, seeing the aurora would be pretty darn enriching. Far more so than the PE lessons 2 of the kids faced today.
Mark and I talked it over and decided to risk it.

He assembled the telescope my Very Excellent Mate SJ donated to us this week. I looked up areas within an hour's drive north of us with little light pollution and a clear forecast. Our best bet seemed to be Sutton Bank in the North York Moors National Park. There was patchy cloud cover forecast with some clear spells and best of all it is a Dark Skies Discovery Site, meaning it is recommended for star gazing.

I filled hot water bottles and flasks and we drove out about 10pm.  The Aurora Watch website and the NOAA were busy downgrading the likelihood of the lights being visible as we made our preparations. However, Miss B was giddy with excitement at a late night adventure and even a slim chance was enough to keep me motivated.  We set off into the darkness.

The drive went by quickly. B fell asleep within about 5 minutes. There was little to see until we arrived in the National Park area, when we had to swerve to avoid a large hare. Hare are ENORMOUS in comparison with rabbits. It was very cool.

The star gazing was more than cool. It was very, very cold. Those hot water bottles came into their own!
Our 14 year old was very proud to have focused the telescope on the bright moon and we took turns peering at the craters.  Jupiter was the next brightest thing we saw, which was also pretty neat.  I saw a shooting star. Obviously that called for a rousing chorus of The Shooting Star song by They Might Be Giants before we retreated to the warmth of the car to wait out some cloud cover.

 I read aloud from Miss B's storybook, the lads played on their tablets and Mark played chess against his phone. Whenever the skies cleared we'd bob outside again - Mark and our eldest playing with the telescope and me staring to the north horizon willing it to light up. We lasted until 12:15 am, when the cloud in the north had thickened and the Aurora Watch index made it clear there was nothing likely to happen.

Somehow, although seeing the Northern Lights would have been beyond wonderful, we still headed home in good spirits. We'd been out adventuring. We'd gone somewhere new, and we'd stayed out on a school night and didn't even care. The younger two fell asleep in the car again; Mark and I drank tea from the flask and chatted as we drove. By1:20 am we were home, huddled up under duvets drifting to sleep.

Of course this morning was difficult. Of course the kids were late - although not our insomniac eldest, who broke with his usual habit and got to school on time.  Filling in the school's Late Book, I decided to be honest about the reason.

Reason for Lateness: Irresponsible parents.

1 comment:

  1. Given half a chance,I'd have gone out looking for the lights too!