Exploring the Earth and Sky of the West

photography

Aurora Borealis from Washington

One of the great things about living in Washington is the occasional opportunity to see the aurora borealis (northern lights). While we rarely get the all-sky displays that are common in Alaska, Canada, or Scandinavia, there are typically at least a few nights per year where they are bright enough to see dancing on the northern horizon with the naked eye. This has been especially true this past year, as the Sun inches toward the next solar maximum in 2025. (Aurora are the result of interactions between our atmosphere, magnetic field, and charged particles spit out by the Sun. More solar activity generally means more opportunities to see aurorae.)

This past week, I witnessed a stellar (by Washington standards at least) auroral show. In a stroke of luck, I was already scheduled to lead a public stargazing event on the evening that Earth was hit by a large coronal mass ejection (CME), a burst of charged particles from the Sun that can trigger aurorae upon arrival at Earth. It was quite a treat for everyone, given that “see the northern lights” was not part of our event advertising. Instead, it was a nice bonus for everyone that braved the still-rather-chilly-and-windy spring weather.

Red, pink and green curtains of light in the sky
Aurora borealis from Yakima, WA, March 30, 2022

This was my fourth time seeing the northern lights: three times from Washington, and once, oddly, from southern Utah. One big takeaway is that the show is a little different each time. This was the first time I had seen or photographed a red aurora. What’s more, the red color was easily visible to the naked eye. Seeing the sky glowing red was quite a strange sight; it felt like something was wrong with my eyes. In the photos, the aurora has an almost pink or magenta color, something that seems to be relatively uncommon. The display was brief: after less than 30 minutes, the lights dissipated.

Red and pink curtains of light in the sky
Aurora borealis from Yakima, WA, March 30, 2022

Comparing these photos to one from my last sighting in October 2021, it’s almost hard to believe they are the same phenomenon. In October, the lights hugged the horizon and the green color was not nearly as apparent to the naked eye. (I find this odd given that the human eye is much more sensitive to green light than red light, especially at night…would expect it to be the other way around.)

Aurora borealis from Selah, WA, October 11, 2021

These tantalizing glimpses of the aurora borealis the last few months are making me want to plan a winter trip to Alaska in the next few years while the Sun remains active. Fingers crossed we can make it happen!


Some Statistics From 15 Years of Photography

An orange sandstone arch frames a distant mountain range at sunset
A herd of elk stand in a grassy forest

A herd of elk in Washington’s Wenas Valley.

Back at the beginning of the pandemic, I embarked on a project to finally organize and categorize my extensive photo collection. I have nearly 100,000 photos in Lightroom, but as I generally try to spend as little time as possible in front of the computer screen, I had never bothered to organize them in any meaningful way. The initial decision to fix this was a function of both time (I was stuck at home…) and practicality. I use my images extensively in my job as a community college astronomy and geology instructor, and finding that one specific photo of a rock or lunar eclipse has always been sort of a nightmare if I didn’t happen to remember exactly when it was taken. 

The project started off quickly (when I was stuck at home…) but as we re-emerged into the world a few months later, progress soon slowed, and I am just now finishing the project almost two years after I began. While tedious at times, it has also been a joy to rediscover many long forgotten photos. I hope to post many of these in the coming months. As a statistics nerd, it’s also been interesting to examine some of the data on where and when I’ve taken the most photos. For example, here is a graph showing the number of images I’ve taken each year, going back to 2007 (almost 15 years ago!) when I purchased my first digital camera: 

Graph showing the number of photos taken per year

It looks like it may have taken me a few years to fully internalize that, with digital, I could take as many photos as I wanted and not have to worry about the cost of film! As you can see, I’ve taken fewer photos this year than I have since 2008, a fact which I was acutely aware of even before making this graph. The drop-off from 2018-2020 is a little harder to explain, as we traveled quite extensively in those years (albeit closer to home in 2020 due to the pandemic). I’d like to think it’s because I’ve gotten better at capturing a good shot on the first attempt, but who knows… 

An orange sandstone arch frames a distant mountain range at sunset

A sunset view of Delicate Arch from 2012. While a somewhat cliché shot, it is also one that’s getting harder and harder to capture as crowds at popular viewpoints get larger and larger. 

My project also involved sorting photos by location. As of Dec 2021, here are the top five states in which I’ve taken the most photos:  

StatePhotos Taken
Washington21,154
Utah17,188
Colorado13,642
Arizona8,959
California3,779

No surprises here: I’ve lived in Washington for most of my adult life, with brief stints in Utah and Colorado. Arizona is where I grew up (and frequently return), while my now-wife lived in California during the early years of our relationship. 

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Basalt cliffs in Grand Coulee, Washington

Breaking things down a bit more, the specific locations where I’ve taken the most photos are also all found in one of the five states from above: 

LocationPhotos Taken
Dixie National Forest, UT2779
Cedar Breaks National Monument, UT2757
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, CO2703
Wenatchee National Forest, WA2122
Zion National Park, UT2014
Rocky Mountain National Park, CO1768
San Juan Mountains, CO1695

The Dixie National Forest covers a pretty wide swath of southern Utah, so its presence in the top spot is perhaps a little misleading. Cedar Breaks and Black Canyon, while relatively small parks, are places that I worked for several summers or years. I was a little surprised to see Zion National Park so high on this list. While we lived close to Zion during our time in Utah, it was generally a place we tried to avoid most of the year, given the crowds and heat. Apparently we ended up there more than I remembered! 

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A rare pink specimen of red columbine (Aquilegia formosa) in the Dixie National Forest, Utah.

Cliffs of pink, orange, and white rock, with patches of snow and a forest in the background

Sunset from Point Supreme in Cedar Breaks National Monument, UT. (I’m not 100% sure, but I think this may be the first cell phone photo I’ve ever posted on this site…)

In nearly 15 years of photography, I have taken 300+ individual images in one day just three times. Below is a list of my most “productive” (measured by sheer volume that is) days of photography:

DatePhotos TakenOccasion/Location
6/11/2012342First visit to Great Sand Dunes NP in Colorado
8/7/2009327Backpacking trip to Havasu Canyon, Arizona
5/16/2015316Black Elk Peak and Custer State Park, South Dakota
4/20/2019282Backpacking trip to Willow Gulch, Utah
7/9/2012279Yankee Boy Basin, San Juan Mtns, Colorado
Ripples in the sand are highlighted by the setting sun.

Sunset in the dunes at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. This was definitely a memorable day; the patterns of light and shadows I witnessed that evening are vivid even 10 years later. 

A small waterfall cascades over orange and brown rocks

A small cascade along Havasu Creek, Arizona.

Towering white clouds hover over a rocky ridge with a small lookout tower

Cumulonimbus clouds tower over Black Elk Peak, the highest point in South Dakota.

As far as animate objects, I have taken more photos of bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) than any other animal (followed by elk, yellow bellied marmots, mule deer, mountain goats, and, in an aquatic twist, ochre sea stars.) The sheep were a fixture of our drives to and from Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park while living on the Front Range of Colorado.

A bighorn sheep ram in Big Thompson Canyon

Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, Big Thompson Canyon, Colorado

I could bore you with a detailed breakdown of the geologic features that I’ve photographed, but perhaps that is best saved for another day… 


Mountains of Summer

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Tahoma dominates the skyline as seen from a ridge above Spray Park in the northwest corner of Mt. Rainier National Park. The boggy area in the lower right was filled with splintered tree trunks, likely the results of a good-sized avalanche this past winter. 

As temperatures and cloud covers takes a decidedly fall-like turn here in central Washington, I’ve been looking back on photos from a whirlwind summer. While we were on the road for a good portion of the summer, we were able to make time for a few brief excursions to our “backyard” mountains: Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams, and the Goat Rocks. Here are some of my favorite images from those trips:

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Traversing the Nisqually Glacier on the south side of Mt. Rainier in early summer. I had the opportunity to take a basic mountaineering course this past spring, which culminated in a beautiful day on the ice in mid-June. A great way to kick-off the summer! 

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A view of Mt. Rainier from upper Spray Park, framed by Echo Rock (left) and Observation Rock (right).

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A lone glacial meltwater pool on the slopes of Mt. Rainier.

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Sunset light on the summit of Mt. Rainier, as seen from the Spray Park Trail.

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Ives Peak in the Goat Rocks Wilderness, flanked by clouds rolling in from the west and a sky made pale-orange by abundant wildfire smoke. 

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We spent a mostly cloudy and damp evening camped on Bear Creek Mountain in the Goat Rocks Wilderness. Every 15 minutes or so, there would be a momentary gap in the low clouds passing over the peak, allowing fleeting glimpses toward the west. Here, the outline of Mt. Rainier is barely visible through the clouds at left. 

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Mt. Adams at sunset as seen from the burn scar of the 2015 Cougar Creek Fire. A small cap cloud hovers over the summit. 

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The Big Dipper over Mt. Adams.