STAR STRUCK IN SKYE

Lots of us dream about see­ing the North­ern Lights, but for Andy Sta­bles, see­ing them be­came some­thing of an ad­dic­tion. Af­ter study­ing na­ture’s show­stop­ping event for years, he’s now able to ac­cu­rately pre­dict when the phe­nom­e­non will oc­cur – and as Su­sanW

The Press and Journal (Highlands & Islands) - - Contents -

It’s not the North­ern Lights of Old Aberdeen that get stargaz­ers across the world ex­cited these days, but the North­ern Lights in the skies over Glen­dale on the Isle of Skye that are the big talk­ing point of late – and much of that is down to the hard work and ded­i­ca­tion of a part-time crofter.

Ev­ery night, more than 1,000 peo­ple log on to an app he’s cre­ated which ac­cu­rately pre­dicts when the North­ern Lights can be seen.

What’s re­mark­able is that Andy Sta­bles didn’t grow up look­ing at the stars. In fact, he rarely saw them grow­ing up in York­shire, al­though like most young school­boys, he had more than a pass­ing in­ter­est in space and as­tro­nauts.

Dur­ing a hol­i­day to Scot­land, he and his wife Ali­son, who now works for the High­land Coun­cil, vis­ited Skye and fell in love with the place. “Step­ping out the front door and look­ing up at these huge dark skies was just amaz­ing,” said Andy, 48.

Scot­land en­joys some of the dark­est skies in Europe and ar­eas such as Skye, Lochalsh and the north­ern west coast are largely free from the light pol­lu­tion which can dom­i­nate the sky­lines over big towns and cities.

As well as inky black skies, on clear nights you can see thou­sands of stars twin­kling, grace­ful con­stel­la­tions and en­joy the amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence of the aurora bo­re­alis, also know as the North­ern Lights.

“Af­ter hol­i­day­ing in Skyewe­fell in love with the place and ended up buy­ing a house here, which we used as a se­cond home ini­tially, but loved it so much we made it our full- time home 10 years ago,” said Andy who works partt ime as a crofter and part-time as a web de v e loper.

“I got into star gaz­ing by ac­ci­dent as there’s so much space and dark skies here you can’t help but look up at the stars. I’d seen the au­ro­ras a few times with­out fully re­al­is­ing what I was see­ing, then­dur­ingstrong dis­plays I’d see dis­tinct col­umns and try to cap­ture these on cam­era.

“It took me a long time to work out how do it but when I turned over the cam­era and saw the im­age I’d cap­tured for the first time it just blew my mind. It was an amaz­ing sight and from then on I be­came ad­dicted to tak­ing pho­to­graphs of the spec­ta­cle.”

While Ali­son en­joyed see­ing some of the more spec­tac­u­lar shows na­ture was putting on, for Andy it be­came some­thing of an daily ob­ses­sion. “It can be cold and windy. You have to dodge show­ers and clouds. It can be te­dious and bor­ing most of the time and of­ten there’s noth­ing to see with the naked eye, but I love it,” said Andy.

While his in­ter­est was ini­tially in tak­ing great pics, that quickly de­vel­oped into a de­sire to know more about the sci­ence be­hind the aurora bo­re­alis and find­ing a way to pre­dict when an aurora would hap­pen.

“An aurora is ba­si­cally light caused by charged par­ti­cles in the Earth’s mag­ne­to­sphere. Quite a com­plex process called a sub­storm oc­curs and so­lar winds blow charged par­ti­cles at the earth. These in­ter­act with the earth’s at­mos­phere and dis­tort the mag­netic field to cre­ate a big bulge at the side of the earth op­po­site the sun.

“Even­tu­ally the bulge be­comes so big it snaps. Field lines break upand re­lease the par­ti­cles which are then sucked back to earth at the mag­netic poles. It’s the par­ti­cles re­leas­ing their en­ergy as light that be­come the aurora,” said Andy.

Ona bird ta­ble out­side his front door, he set up a cal­i­brated piece of­wood­which he’d use to propup his cam­era. “As soon as it be­came dark I’d nip out­side and take a pho­to­graph ev­ery 15minute or so and re­peat this un­til it was bed­time. I spent a year do­ing this.

“As a re­sult, I dis­cov­ered, by ac­ci­dent, a dif­fuse aurora which is ba­si­cally a very weak aurora that ap­pears as a light red band on the hori­zon.

“I re­alised this al­ways oc­curred at the start of the sub­storm, so I spent aw­holeyear tak­ing pic­tures of ev­ery sin­gle sub­storm then cor­re­lated all the data and pho­to­graphs I’d col­lected against all

“When I turned over the cam­era and saw the im­age I’d cap­tured for the first time it just blewmy­mind”

the avail­able data avail­able on­line from satel­lites and mag­ne­tome­ters and from that learned to pre­dict ac­cu­rately when an aurora would oc­cur,” said Andy.

Armed with this new-found in­for­ma­tion he’d gen­er­ously share it with in­ter­ested friends and neigh­bours. “I started a sort of phone-a-friend list so ev­ery time I spot­ted the aurora hap­pen­ing I’d phone to let them know so they could head out with their cam­eras, but it got to the point where I had so many peo­ple to phone I’d miss the spec­ta­cle my­self!”

Fol­low­ing ad­vice from col­leagues he set up a Face­book page and de­vel­oped a free app, so oth­ers could en­joy the reg­u­lar spec­ta­cles above the dark skies of Glen­dale too.

“It’s been crazy, with some­thing like more than 11,000 peo­ple fol­low­ing the Glen­dale Sky Au­ro­ras Face­book page,” said Andy.

“It’s now tak­ing up a lot of my spare time as it’s pretty com­plex and takes a lot of cod­ing to put to­gether.

“I’m not mak­ing any money out of it and have no plans to write a book or any­thing, I just think it’s a nice thing to be able to help peo­ple see the au­ro­ras and I get a lot of thank you mes­sages from peo­ple who are de­lighted that, as a re­sult of the app, they have been able to seethe­mand­pho­tograph­them,” said Andy. Andy’s face­book page is at https://www.face­book.com/ Glen­daleSkyeAuro­ras. The App is free, works on all mo­bile phones, tablets, desk­top PCs and lap­tops and can be down­loaded from: https:// www. glen­daleskye. com/ aurora-alerts/

The North­ern Lights or aurora bo­re­alis can be an amaz­ing sight dur­ing the win­ter months when in­cred­i­ble, shift­ing col­umns of light ap­pear like search lights in the skies over Glen­dale. Most au­ro­ras on the Isle of Skye ap­pear white to the naked eye, and it is very rare for colours to be vis­i­ble at this lat­i­tude (57.5° North). It’s when the aurora is photographed us­ing a long ex­po­sure that the spec­tac­u­lar colours re­veal them­selves. Au­ro­ras are vis­i­ble most of the year in Glen­dale apart from June and July as it never re­ally gets dark Andy Sta­bles got into star gaz­ing by ac­ci­dent

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