Exploring the Earth and Sky of the West

Posts tagged “Washington

Happy New Year!

A winter scene along the American River in the Wenatchee National Forest, Washington

Happy New Year from the winter wonderland of Washington! It’s been a somewhat dreary winter for us so far, with lots of inversions, freezing fog, and single digit temps. Fortunately, the gray pall lifted for a brief period on New Year’s Day, allowing us to enjoy a day of snowshoeing along the American River in the Cascades just west of Yakima. While it was a gorgeous bluebird day, our trail of choice followed the northern base of a tall ridge, keeping us mostly in the shade. The frequent glimpses of sunny forest across the valley were tantalizing, but the riverside scenery and relatively warm temperatures made for a pleasant outing nevertheless.

Here’s hoping to more such days (and more photography) in the months ahead, and best wishes for a joyful 2023!

A young conifer peeks through a pristine blanket of fresh snow along the American River in the Washington Cascades

Looking back at Spring

A backpacker looks out an at orange sunset sky while standing on a rocky mesa covered in wildflowers

Spring is my favorite season here in central Washington. Our winters, while short and relatively mild in terms of snowfall and temperatures, can be quite dreary. Temperature inversions, freezing fog, and bad air quality are a staple of our weather forecasts from November to February. Summers can be brutally hot: the third digit on my home weather station spends quite a bit of time illuminated from June through August. While conditions in the Cascades are more tolerable, here in the arid sagebrush-steppe of the Yakima Valley, shade trees are found only along rivers and in watered urban backyards.

Spring holds the perfect balance: the days get progressively longer, conditions are perfect for outdoor exploring, and, as an added bonus, foothills of the Cascades come alive with wildflowers (one of my favorite photographic subjects the past few years.) Fall has its merits as well, but the with the onset of winter occupying the back of ones mind, the urge to get outside before the snow starts falling can feel almost stressful compared to the relaxed bliss of spring.

Here are some of my favorite photos from this past spring, from March’s vernal equinox up through June’s summer solstice:

A cluster of pink wildflowers with sun shining through the petals
A cluster of grass widows (Olsynium douglasii) backlit by the sun, Cowiche Canyon Preserve, Yakima, WA
Cluster of bright yellow sunflower-like flowers on a grassy slope
Arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) plants cover a dry slope near Chelan, WA
A rocky ridge with forest on both sides. The forest on the right has been burned by a wildfire, while the trees on the left remain green.
A rocky ridge in the William O. Douglas Wilderness separates burned from unburned forest. The 2021 Schneider Springs Fire was ignited by lightning on the ridge in the upper right, and proceeded to burn 107,000 acres in the Cascade foothills west of Yakima.
Slender green stalks bearing tiny white flowers grow out of gray and black burned soil, with charcoal logs and an orange sunset sky in the background
Foothill death camas (Toxicoscordion paniculatum) plants emerge from ashy soil in an area burned by the Schneider Springs fire in 2021.
A backpacker looks out an at orange sunset sky while standing on a rocky mesa covered in wildflowers
A top-notch sunset from a wildflower-strewn plateau in the William O. Douglas Wilderness west of Yakima.
A clump of pine trees appear silhouetted against an orange sunset sky.
Scorched ponderosa pine trees silhouetted against an orange sunset sky.
City lights are seen reflected in a lake, while the light of a campfire illuminates trees along the shore.
Night on the shores of Lake Chelan, WA
A sea of yellow canola flowers fills the landscape beneath a partly cloudy sky
Blooming canola fields near Wilbur, WA
A trio of pale blue flowers nearly blend in against a partly cloudy sky
A trio of blue flax (Linum lewisii) flowers nearly blend in against a partly cloudy sky, Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area, WA
Cluster of cream white, purple, and yellow wildflowers
Thompsons paintbrush (Castilleja thompsonii) and Gairdner’s penstemon (Penstemon gairdneri) on Manastash Ridge, WA
Cluster of bright pink wildflowers at the base of a scraggly woody plant
A cluster of bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva) flowers beneath a gnarled sagebrush stem, Cowiche Mountain, WA

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!