Noctilucent Clouds in Scotland
On one of my many attempts to photograph the Aurora Borealis, I have on the rare occasion seen strange clouds in the dark night sky. I didn't realise it at the time but these clouds were called Noctilucent clouds (NLCs) and are actually a very rare sight in Scotland. The photo below is the only time I've taken a photo of the "night shining clouds", but other photographers have some much more impressive examples.
What are Noctilucent Clouds?
Rare cloud formations that form at very high altitude in the night sky in northern hemisphere countries during the summer months. The highest clouds look very ethereal/electric in shades of luminous blue and silver, like something out of a sci-fi movie. They could be described as electric streaks, claw marks or vapour trails in the sky and look very apocalyptic!
How do Noctilucent Clouds form?
Noctilucent clouds are comprised of tiny ice crystals combining with dust particles at very high altitudes of up to 279,000 ft / 85 km - higher than any other clouds on Earth - when cold temperatures and pressure in the upper atmosphere (Mesosphere) meet the right conditions.
It's possible the dust and water involved in the creation of Noctilucent clouds are created by natural phenomena such as meteors and volcanos, but man-made pollution could also be a cause.
We can see the Noctilucent clouds more easily in summer as sunlight from below the horizon reflect on them at the correct angle for us to see them, this is why we can't see them in the winter months.
NASA’s Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere (AIM) Satellite
In April 2007 NASA launched a satellite dedicated to studying ice at the edge of the atmosphere and polar mesospheric clouds. Placed in a low-altitude orbit, AIM can look down on mesospheric clouds from above giving scientists a new perspective on Noctilucent clouds and new avenues of study. Studying noctilucent clouds has been a major focal point in NASA research.
As a direct result of the AIM satellite, there have been many discoveries on the clouds themselves and the workings of the upper atmosphere. It also found that Noctilucent Cloud occurrences have been increasing over the last decade.
Can I see Noctilucent Clouds in Scotland?
Yes, it definitely can be seen, I have personally seen them on 2 or 3 occasions but they are very rare. Countries at high latitudes in the northern hemisphere have a much better chance of seeing noctilucent clouds.
On the occasions I've seen them they have appeared in the north, but also check to the west horizon too about half an hour after sunset or before sunrise. Look for the telltale blue tendrils/scrapes/lines/marks in the sky, it could be a noctilucent cloud. The sky doesn't get fully dark at this time of year, but this is also what helps us see the clouds with the angle of the sun.
So far 2021 has been a good year to see clouds noctilucent in Scotland, with a great display on the 28th of June... I missed this one myself but have seen many great photos on Facebook and Flickr. There have been some great photos of NLCs over Edinburgh.
Scotland is ideally situated to see noctilucent clouds, but countries as far south as Germany, Hungary, Austria, Italy, and even Israel have witnessed this natural phenomenon.
Noctilucent Clouds can be seen in the southern hemisphere between November and February.
When can I see Noctilucent Clouds in Scotland?
Unfortunately, Noctilucent Clouds are not visible at all times of year; NLC season is between mid May and the beginning of August each year on summer nights. They are quite rare so it can be useful to receive news alerts when there is a display. There are apps on the app stores that can alert your phone, and also websites such as spaceweather.com and Facebook pages such as Noctilucent Cloud Watch and Noctilucent Clouds Around the World. These groups are also a great place to ask questions and speak to like-minded people.
Do Noctilucent Clouds affect the weather?
No, the clouds are very high in the Earth's atmosphere and would not have any effect on the weather at ground level.
What camera settings for Noctilucent Clouds?
As mentioned above I have only taken a photo once and my pic is fairly tame compared to some others out there. Here are some tips:
- Always use a tripod in low light, you will have to keep the camera still to capture the light without blurring the image.
- Use a wide-angle lens to take in as much of the clouds as you can, also it's worth trying to get a nice foreground for your image too just to finish off your image nicely - the display tends to last longer than say the Aurora Borealis so you can take your time and set up a really nice shot.
- Use a slow shutter speed - the clouds don't move very quickly so you can afford to take a longer exposure.
- Use low ISO - because you can leave the shutter open longer you can also use a low ISO setting. This will improve your image quality and have less grain/noise.
- Use a shutter release cable or timer option to trigger your shutter - this will help you get a sharp image as the camera shake will be reduced. Even better use mirror lock-up mode to cut down on shake even more.
- If you have problems setting focus, try setting your lens to infinity.
The settings I used on the photo above were 24mm, f4.0, 8 seconds, and ISO 100, it was taken on July 12th 2014.
Noctilucent clouds / night shining clouds are a rare and beautiful sight in Scotland and worthy of keeping in mind in the summer nights/months for a unique photo or just something new to experience in our beautiful country.
Please also see my article on how to photograph the Aurora Borealis in Scotland.