It’s fair to say that as June ends and July approaches, UK noctilucent cloud (NLC) observers are pleased with the displays they have seen so far, but a little frustrated too.

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Noctilucent clouds are only visible to us for a short period, between the end of May and the start of August every year, because that’s when conditions in the upper atmosphere are right to trigger their formation.

Since the 2022 NLCseason began, there have been quite a few displays, every one very pretty and worth observing in its own right of course.

A display seen from some parts of the UK very early this morning (28 June 28) looks like it was quite impressive, but before then they had almost all been quite muted affairs, hugging the horizon and not reaching any great altitude.

For info on imaging, read our guide on how to photograph noctilucent clouds and how to photograph noctilucent clouds with a smartphone.

Noctilucent clouds captured by Stuart Atkinson, Kendal, Cumbria, late June 2022
Noctilucent clouds captured by Stuart Atkinson, Kendal, Cumbria, late June 2022

I was lucky enough to see NLC from here in Cumbria on four consecutive nights, between 20-23 June and another display on 26 June, and these displays were seen in other parts of the UK too

But as pretty as they were none of them featured any really complicated structure or was strikingly bright, either.

And, of course, when a noctilucent cloud display has been occurring, many observers have been defeated by the weather and have had to make do with seeing other people’s photos of it the next morning.

So everyone who stays up late or sets their alarm for 'ridiculously early' in the hope of going outside and seeing these beautiful, electric blue clouds shining above their northern horizon is crossing their fingers that when July comes it will bring with it an increase in NLC activity.

How likely is that? Well, going by past years, the biggest and brightest displays have occurred in July, so we’re hoping the same is true for 2022.

Noctilucent clouds captured by Stuart Atkinson, Kendal, Cumbria, late June 2022
Noctilucent clouds captured by Stuart Atkinson, Kendal, Cumbria, late June 2022

Looking through my folders of NLC images on my computer, the best displays I’ve seen over the past 5 years have all occurred in the first two weeks of July, so I’m hoping for that pattern to continue.

If activity picks up, we’re likely to see displays of NLC that are bigger and brighter than the ones we’ve seen so far, featuring long streamers of noctilucent cloud flowing away from brighter areas with much more delicate structure inside them, such as ripples and cross-hatch patterns.

Such displays are very obvious and beautiful to the naked eye, and can be seen from the middles of towns and cities, not just from the dark sky coasts of Scotland, the north east and the south east of England where most NLC images seem to be taken.

What we’re really hoping for is a display that starts small but brews up into something truly amazing, eventually painting the whole of the northern sky with streamers, ribbons, whirls and swirls of silvery blue, stretching from west to east and reaching overhead and bright enough to cast shadows.

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And as incredible as that sounds, it’s not too much to ask for.

Noctilucent clouds photographed by Stuart Atkinson in June 2021 from Kendal, Cumbria, UK.
Noctilucent clouds photographed by Stuart Atkinson in June 2021 from Kendal, Cumbria, UK.

There have been displays like that in the past, observed from all across the UK and across Europe too; displays so stunning they were seen and photographed from as far south as France, and photographs showed the Eiffel Tower silhouetted against them…!

I was lucky enough to see a display like that in July 2014, when NLC filled the sky above me as I stood in the ruins of the 800-year old castle that stands above my town of Kendal.

It started off very modestly, little more than a few curls and streamers of pale gold above the north east horizon before midnight, but an hour later it had billowed up from behind the Cumbrian hills into something quite mesmerising, an array of tendrils and clouds of silvery blue shining behind the few dark 'normal' clouds in the sky.

It faded away to almost nothing for an hour or so, as many NLC displays do, but then it came back, and by 2am the northern sky was ablaze with so much NLC that it looked like a force field or wormhole special effect from a sci-fi film.

Standing there in the castle ruins I almost expected alien spaceships to come flying out of it.

Noctilucent clouds captured by Stuart Atkinson, Kendal, Cumbria, late June 2022
Noctilucent clouds captured by Stuart Atkinson, Kendal, Cumbria, late June 2022

The display was still going strong as the sky began to brighten with the approach of dawn, and only sunrise made it vanish completely. I’ll never forget it.

And it confirmed the Golden Rule of NLC watching: when it goes quiet, don’t give up; the best is yet to come… probably

Will we see something like that in July 2022? I hope so! We’ll just have to see what happens.

How will you know if something like that is going to happen? Unfortunately, you can’t, not until it happens anyway.

Because the appearance – and strength - of NLC displays can’t be predicted as accurately as displays of the aurora, seeing them means keeping an eye on the sky on clear nights and hoping something appears.

You can increase your chances greatly by signing up to NLC-watching groups or following NLC observers on social media, because they always shout out when a display is visible.

And there are apps and websites you can use to receive alerts too

But you can’t rely on others to tell you something special is going on; they might be clouded out, or ill in bed, or at a party!

If you want to be absolutely certain of seeing the next big display you’ll have to go back to basics and keep looking at the sky on clear nights.

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Trust me, it will be worth it…

Authors

Stuart atkinson astronomy writer
Stuart AtkinsonAstronomy writer

Stuart Atkinson is a lifelong amateur astronomer and an author of popular astronomy books.

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