Exploring the Earth and Sky of the West

Posts tagged “photography

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.


From A(storia) to B(rookings) Down the Oregon Coast

As another summer comes to a close, I am enjoying looking back at some photos from the past few months. In mid-August we had the chance to spend two weeks in Oregon, most of which we spent along the spectacular Oregon Coast. While not my first trip to the coast, this was my first time visiting some of the more remote southern sections of the coast, and over the course of the two weeks we were actually able to drive the entire Oregon section of Highway 101, all the way from Washington to California.

We began the trip in Astoria, gazing at the mouth of the Columbia River in Fort Stevens State Park and visiting the site of Fort Clatsop, quarters for the Lewis & Clark Expedition during the winter of 1805-1806. From there we travelled south to visit with friends in Rockaway Beach for several nights before continuing on to Newport and then heading inland for other adventures. A few days later we returned to the coast at the mouth of the Rogue River in Gold Beach, just 45 minutes or so north of the California border. After a quick drive into the Golden State, we began moving north, through Coos Bay, Bandon, Florence, and the Oregon Dunes before returning to Newport. After a final few days in the Lincoln City area, it was back up the Columbia River Gorge to Washington and back to work! Here are some of my favorite images from the trip, arranged from north to south:

A sandy beach covered in footprints extends toward a horizon filled with dark clouds

Late afternoon light on the beach in Rockaway Beach, Oregon. The northern third of the Oregon Coast is characterized by long stretches of wide, sandy beach. Sand is relatively abundant here thanks to the Columbia River, though the supply has been greatly diminished since dams started popping up on the Columbia beginning in the mid 1900s. 

A person sits on a log on a sandy beach. Lights of a city are seen in the background reflecting off a thick layer of fog.

I had been hoping to do some night sky photography from the beach, but despite relatively benign daytime weather, most nights looked something like this, with dense mist and fog enveloping the shore. Here, lights from Rockaway Beach illuminate the fog.

A red and orage sky at sunset is reflected in pools of water along the beach as a bird soars overhead

Sunset from Rockaway Beach, Oregon.

A rivulet of water enters the ocean while the sky overhead is bright orange at sunset.

Sunset from Rockaway Beach, Oregon.

Over a dozen seals rest on a sandy beach alongside a pelican with a long beak and a seagull.

Brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) and Pacific harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) on Salishan Spit near Lincoln City, Oregon.

Large waves crash up against a coastline made of dark colored rock

Thor’s Well is an interesting feature within the Cape Perpetua Scenic Area near Yachats. A ~10 foot wide hole in the rocky coastline, the Well connects to the open ocean via a small cave. The well alternately drains and fills as the waves roll in and out. Watching the water roll into the Well and waves crashing against the rocks was a mesmerizing experience.

A green plant with abundant translucent patches on its leaves grows out of a dense bog

Scattered bogs along the Oregon Coast host rare patches of Darlingtonia californica, the California Pitcher Plant. One of the few species of carnivorous plants native to the Pacific Northwest, the translucent patches on the leaves supposedly confuse insects trying to escape from inside the plants. 

A green plant with abundant translucent patches on its leaves grows out of a dense bog

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The remains of a large tree stump are seen partially submerged in shallow water.

What at first glance appear to be rocks sticking up out of the water are actually the remains of a massive tree stump in Sunset Bay near North Bend. Large concentrations of dead trees, often partially buried in sand, are found all up and down the Oregon Coast, and are often referred to as “Ghost Forests”. Some of these trees, particularly the ones found in coastal estuaries, appear to have been killed by rapid subsidence associated with large earthquakes along the Cascadia Subduction Zone just offshore. Analysis and dating of these trees have revealed that large “megathrust” earthquakes are a regular occurrence in the Pacific Northwest. In the case of the trees seen here in Sunset Bay, it appears to be unclear if earthquakes or more run-of-the-mill processes (such as coastal erosion) are the culprit.  

Layers of tan rock sit tilted alongside the ocean

These tilted rocks at Shore Acres State Park near North Bend have appeared in many a geology textbook! Shore Acres is home to one of the world’s most striking examples of what geologists call an “angular unconformity,” where flat-lying sedimentary rocks (visible in upper left) rest directly on top of older, tilted sedimentary rocks. The boundary between the flat rocks and the tilted rocks represents a large chunk of geologic time missing from the rock record. Several hundred years ago, geologists recognized angular unconformities as some of the first strong evidence of the Earth’s immense age, as they require multiple cycles of sediment deposition, burial, uplift, and erosion in order to form.

A small island of rock sticks out of the ocean. Many seals and sea lions lie on the rock and adjoining sand. A boat passes by in the background.

Sea lions and seals hauled out on Shell Rock near Simpson Reef. Interpretive signs at this overlook proclaimed that this is the largest haul-out site for sea lions on the Oregon Coast. 

Sand dunes along the beach with rocks sticking out of the water in the background. Wavy white clouds fill the sky.

Coastal sand dunes mirror the clouds at Myers Creek Beach south of Gold Beach, Oregon

A view of several rocks sticking out of the ocean. One rock has an archway in it and the sunlight is passing through the archway, forming a narrow beam of sunlight on the ocean surface.

Sunset at Arch Rock, between Brookings and Gold Beach, Oregon

A large rock protruding from the ocean has an archway in it and the sunlight is passing through the archway, forming a narrow beam of sunlight on the ocean surface.

A closer view of Arch Rock.

Several large rocky islands protrude from the ocean. The sky is dark blue and the first quarter moon hovers above them.

The first quarter moon hovers over sea stacks along the Oregon Coast south of Gold Beach, Oregon.

A panoramic view of a grassy slope, a sandy beach, blue ocean, and several rocky islands

A late afternoon view of Lone Rock Beach and Twin Rocks from the Cape Ferrelo Viewpoint near Brookings, Oregon.


Halos, arcs, and bows…oh my!

Double rainbow near Gunnison, Colorado

The term “landscape photography” is a misnomer in some ways. After all, many of the most interesting and unique landscape shots are those in which something unique or interesting is happening in the sky: a vibrant sunset bathing the land in a golden glow, an ominous storm looming on the horizon, or a terrestrial scene backed by a sky awash in stars. A colorful sky, interesting clouds, or a stray meteor can single-handedly liven up otherwise passé landscapes. As a longtime astronomy educator, I have a habit of looking up…a habit that often pays photographic dividends. I had an astronomy professor in college who would often remark that “most people just don’t look up”, a sad but true (save for perhaps an occasional glace at the clouds on a stormy day) acknowledgement of just how little attention most of us pay to the sky above us. 

One of the things that we miss by not looking up is a myriad of features that result from the interaction of sunlight with water droplets or ice crystals in our atmosphere. These features lack a catchy collective name, but scientifically are often referred to as atmospheric optical phenomena. Perhaps the most frequently observed example is the humble rainbow: 

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Rainbow over the Wenatchee National Forest in central Washington. This photo was taken in the early afternoon, with the Sun still relatively high in the sky, thus the arc of the rainbow appears quite close to the ground and only a small portion is visible. 

The colorful band of light in a rainbow results from a process known as dispersion. When sunlight passes through water droplets in the Earth’s atmosphere, different colors of light are refracted (or “bent”) by different amounts as they pass through the droplet, thus spreading out the colors that make up “white” sunlight into a rainbow. The water droplets don’t have to be rain; sea spray or the mist of a waterfall can do the trick as well. The geometry of dispersion is such that the center of a rainbow’s curvature will always be directly opposite the Sun. Consequently, the largest and grandest rainbows are seen near sunrise or sunset (see photo below) when our star is low on the horizon. In contrast, when the Sun is higher in the sky, only a small portion of the arc will be visible (see photo above). 

Double rainbow near Gunnison, Colorado. This rainbow appeared not long before sunset, when the Sun was low in the sky, thus nearly an entire semi-circle is visible.

The light source for a rainbow need not be the Sun either. Light from the Moon can also be dispersed through water droplets, with a similar result. The caveat? Even a bright full moon is about 400,000 fainter than the Sun, so the resultant moonbow is much fainter than a rainbow and the colors not bright enough to trigger the color-seeing cones in our eyes. Thus, a moonbow appears monochromatic. I’ve only ever witnessed this eerie phenomenon once: on a damp and muggy evening on the north coast of New Zealand’s South Island, and unfortunately did not have the wherewithal to capture a photo at the time. 

Moving beyond water droplets, the possibilities when sunlight interacts with tiny ice crystals in our atmosphere (such as those that comprise high altitude clouds like cirrus and cirrostratus) are myriad. Depending on the shape, size, and orientation of said crystals, the height of the clouds, and the location of the Sun, a wide range of atmospheric phenomena can result when we see the Sun through these high-altitude icy clouds.  

One of the most common is the 22° halo, a ring of light that encircles the Sun (or the Moon) at a radius of (you guessed it) 22 degrees:

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22 degree halo, Lake Crescent, Olympic National Park, Washington. Blocking out the Sun (with a stick in this case) is often necessary to get a decent photo of these halos.

These halos can be a little difficult to spot (and photograph…) due to the Sun’s glare, but in most locations they are, statistically speaking, much more common than rainbows. Like rainbows, these halos are caused by dispersion as sunlight passes through tiny ice crystals in the atmosphere. If you look VERY carefully (such as in the photo above), you can see that the inner edge of the halo is reddish while the outer edge is bluish.

The name “22° halo” suggests that halos can appear at other distances from the Sun as well, which is indeed the case. Another member of the halo family is the circumhorizontal arc, a halo that takes the form of a brightly colored band circling the horizon at a radius of 46° from the Sun. Unlike 22° halos, circumhorizontal arcs are rarely visible in their entirety. Instead, you’ll usually only see one or two small fragments in areas of the sky where the background consists of the correct type and height of cloud. These fragments look like pieces of a rainbow oriented parallel to the horizon: 

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A portion of a circumhorizontal arc over the Angels Window arch on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Arizona

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Portion of a circumhorizontal arc over Ouray, Colorado

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Small fragment of a circumhorizontal arc (upper left) visible over Mt. Rainier, Washington

In order to see a circumhorizontal arc, the Sun needs to be at least 58° above the horizon. This means that, at least for us here in the mid-Northern latitudes, they are only visible in summertime. The rest of the year the Sun simply doesn’t get high enough in the sky to allow them to be seen, even when the right types of ice crystals are present. (Further north, close to the poles, they can’t be seen at all!) Indeed, a quick review of my photo archives shows that all the photos I have of this phenomenon were taken in late June or July. 

Circumhorizontal arcs bear some resemblance to another phenomenon known as cloud iridescence. Unlike the features we’ve discussed so far, cloud iridescence is the result of diffraction (as opposed to refraction and dispersion), which is when light waves are bent around objects. Iridescence occurs at the edges of very thin clouds that are made of very similar sized water droplets or ice crystals. If the cloud layer is thin and uniform enough, light waves bent around these particles interfere with each other, producing a spectrum of colors. Without getting into the nitty gritty details, the colors that you see in an iridescent cloud are more akin to the colors that you sometimes see in soap bubbles or a pool of oil. 

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Close up of cloud iridescence over Walla Walla, Washington

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Cloud iridescence, Whitman Mission National Historic Site, Washington

Despite their similar appearance, cloud iridescence and circumhorizontal arcs are relatively easy to distinguish from one another. Fragments of circumhorizontal arcs always appear (you guessed it) horizontal relative to the horizon and will always have a bright red band on top. In contrast, cloud iridescence can appear in all sorts of shapes and patterns, and you’ll often see the spectrum of colors repeating themselves multiple times as well, as seen in the photos above. 

Like rainbows, many other atmospheric phenomena occur only when the Sun is close to the horizon, just before sunset or just after sunrise. Sun pillars, like those in the photos below, are the result of sunlight being reflected off the surface of flat, hexagonal-shaped, ice crystals and redirected back to the observer: 

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Sun pillar, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

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Sun pillar, Yakima, Washington

Once in a great while, conditions will be just right and you’ll get a whole truckload of these phenomena all at once, such as on the evening I took the photo below on a recent neighborhood walk as the Sun set over the Cascade range: 

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Atmospheric phenomena galore! Here, the Sun is surrounded by a 22° halo complete with a tangent arc (the triangular wedge of light at the top of the halo). A sun pillar extends vertically above the Sun, while a sundog (the bright patch on the halo to the right of Sun) is visible at right.  

Sundogs and tangent arcs will have to wait until another day. Until then, keep your eyes on the sky. Chances are you’ll spot a nalo, arc, or bow before too long!