My regular readers may remember that I lucked into a surprise viewing of the Aurora Borealis this last May while housesitting for my aunt in Ellensburg. That experience, as magnificent as it was, didn’t let me consider it a done deal. Nope. It made me want more!
In the months since then I’ve joined a Facebook group for Aurora chasers in Washington State, bookmarked prediction websites, studied light pollution maps, and watched videos on YouTube.
Lady Aurora is fickle at the best of times, but in the Seattle area we have three extra things working against us right from the get-go. Our 47 degrees latitude means we can only see the Northern Lights when there is a good geomagnetic storm. We have a massive amount of light pollution. We have frequent cloud cover.
Multiple elements must align at the exact same time for a good Aurora display: a large enough geomagnetic storm, the storm is active during our nighttime hours, no moon, and no clouds. There are also a few atmospheric measures that need to have the right numbers. If any of those things is a bit off, no light show.
This last Wednesday (Sept. 27th) everything aligned perfectly. No clouds, the moon set at 10:54 pm, and a G2 geomagnetic storm warning was in effect. (The scale only goes to 5, so G2 is promising.)
I headed to Brackett’s Landing in Edmonds. There’s a lot of light pollution, but it’s an easy 25 minutes from my home, has a great northern view over the sound, and it’s a bit darker than anything right in Seattle.
Several other photographers were already there when I arrived a little after 10pm. I got all situated and started playing around with my settings. In Ellensburg, getting decent photos without knowing what I was doing was easy because of the dark sky.
This time I was fighting light pollution, a half-moon, and the weird color casts various types of artificial lights create. An experienced photographer helped me out with some tips after I took a few test shots.
This is one of my first test shots before getting the tip that auto white balance wasn’t going to cut it this time. The whole thing has an ugly color cast. (I’ve only just recently started learning about white balance.) Focus is soft too. Oops.
Those who had arrived close to sunset said their cameras had picked up some color earlier, but by the time I was setup the Aurora wasn’t doing much of anything. My camera was only picking up a smudgy patch of sickly green (even after adjusting WB) very low on the horizon. I couldn’t see it with my eyes at all.
Even with no action it was a beautiful night to be out. It had been in the low 80s during the day and was still a pleasant 63 degrees or so at the park. Even better, it was completely calm. Not even a slight breeze to make things uncomfortable. Puget Sound barely rippled, and the Big Dipper was on prominent display right in front of us. Add in the occasional cries of sea birds and it was lovely.
Around 10:40 pm the Aurora started growing stronger and brighter. Before long, a distinct band across the sky was easily visible to the naked eye and showed up very nicely for the camera.
At this point I was playing around with a very cool white balance with a lot of blue in it because I liked the reflected colors on the water. I think of this as my Go Hawks! photo. Heh.
For those unfamiliar with the Northern Lights at our latitude, it’s rare to see color with your eyes. So the above photo doesn’t represent what I actually saw. Camera sensors don’t have the color receptor limitations that human eyes do at night.
What I saw was an arching gray band that looked like a strange thin cloud, and indistinct grayness below it with no stars shining through. In May it looked like a slightly glowing fog bank on the horizon. It’s likely that most of us in the northernmost states have actually seen the Aurora a few times in our lives without ever knowing it.
The band slowly grew brighter and more distinct. Then at almost exactly 11 pm the Lady exploded into a glorious dance.
My camera caught the first activity before my eyes could see any movement.
Bright spots appeared and disappeared, ripples crossed the sky, spikes shot up, curtains swirled. Oh my goodness! It was so amazing that at one point I had tears.
To my eyes it was all still in grayscale. Others there with better night vision said they could see some color, but I never did. It didn’t matter. Even without bright colors it was a spectacular show. Other people in the park came out and gathered around us and we all oohed and ahhed like we were at a 4th of July fireworks display.
The best part of the show lasted over 10 minutes, which is a long time for around here. But there was a lot of activity our cameras picked up for about half an hour.
It wasn’t a perfect evening though. At almost the exact moment the Lady started to dance a bleeping sailboat photobombed us. Argh!
The bleeping boat ruined some of my favorite photos of the night. I can rescue a few by cropping the boat out, but doing so will eliminate part of the Big Dipper, which was so beautifully framed right above the lights.
In this photo I used a much faster shutter speed so at least the boat isn’t such a huge streak of glaring light.
Eventually the boat got farther away and dropped anchor so it was no longer such a distraction. It actually added a little interest once it stayed put.
Long after the dancing was no longer visible to my eyes my camera was still picking up a lot of color and activity. Though even that slowly faded and then died down.
After 11:30 the Aurora slumped back down to just a green band again, but the night still looked promising. There was a high probability we’d see more substorms, so I decided to wait around and see. But at midnight the police came and kicked us out of the park.
Some of the photographers decided to go setup elsewhere and they did end up getting more great photos. But I figured I was pretty darn happy with what I’d gotten in a two-hour period and the dew was getting heavy, so I headed back home.
My final shot of the night, snapped right before the police officer told us we had to leave.
Once home I discovered that the predicted G2 storm was an actual G3, and the Kp had reached 7 or close to it. (I’ll explain Kp another time, but just know that the scale only goes to 9, so 7 is really high.) That explained why we got the unexpectedly fantastic show.
The next day I learned the aurora had been present the entire night from sunset until dawn, an unusual occurrence in Washington. There were at least two more active displays during the night, though none as spectacular as the one I was lucky enough to witness.