When Meteorology Meets Meteors
'This is why we see these blazing trails across the night sky....it is but the dust of comets burning in our atmosphere.'
Heather Dunmall | 28 November 2016

I have often been told: “fortune favours the well-prepared”.

Unfortunately, Mother Nature had not received the memo, given that she decided the perfect time to water the already sodden Scottish moorlands was in the second week of August. Sadly, this was the time at which India and I had planned to go trekking. While to many this might seem a nightmare, we were in search of astrophysics. Hence, we had planned to go to the Galloway Dark Sky Park in Scotland to get the best view of one of the year’s most spectacular displays: the Perseid Meteor shower.

I was lucky. I had a full two minutes of appreciating the exceptional beauty of the night sky, in an area entirely unpolluted by light, before deciding to return a few hours later when the shower was at its peak. The weather had other plans, and groggily reemerging at four o’clock in the morning to a starless sky was a kick in the teeth if ever I had one.

The phenomenon we had gone to view occurs annually, when Earth crosses the orbital path of Comet Swift-Tuttle, the parent of the Perseid meteor shower. Debris from the comet hits the Earth’s upper atmosphere at up to 130,000 miles per hour (210,000 km/h), lighting up the sky as it does so. This is why we see these blazing trails across the night sky; as the comet gets close to the sun it begins to disintegrate and it is but the dust of comets burning in our atmosphere that we see. For such a beautiful phenomenon it is exceptionally simple to explain.

What is more difficult to explain is the lack of areas such as Galloway. Nationwide we only have three certified Dark Sky Parks. As the Dark Sky’s website describes:

An IDA International Dark Sky Park (IDSP) is a land possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment.

These areas boost local economy; are adequate places for research level astrophysical equipment; provide a sanctuary for wildlife; and are fantastic areas for keen amateur scientists to explore. My week in Galloway was bursting with remarkable views and personal triumphs and, even though we were at the mercy of Mother Nature’s whim - considering we were camping out in the wild for the full seven days - it was one of the most exceptional weeks of my life.

Galloway was as desolate and isolated as it was handsome. Yet this added to the dramatic scenes, particularly when considering why it is so remarkable to the scientific community. It is the isolation, and so lack of light pollution, which makes it special and our duties to protect areas of scientific interest have never been as important as they are today. Without these areas we cannot have research, and without research we cannot have scientific development. Areas such as Galloway should be precious to our community, and their promotion must remain a nationwide priority.


Originial image by Heather Dunmall

James Routledge 2016