Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) in the North Cascades

A star-filled sky over Mount Shuksan in the North Cascades, North Cascades National Park, Washington, USA.
Stars over Mount Shuksan.
Last week I spent some time up at Artist Point in the North Cascades for some fall color and night-sky photography.  I began shooting around 10:30 or so and learned I was the lucky recipient of a half moon.  The light from the moon helped light up the forefront, making it appear almost as daylight with the long shutter exposure.

This was my first time trying out my new Rokinon 14mm lens, which I acquired specifically for star photography.  Previously I had relied on my Canon 17-40mm, which provided very disappointing quality in low light.  The difference was night and day! (pun intended!).  I'm super impressed with the Rokinon lense (also sold under other brand names such as Samyang, Pro-Optic, and Bower) and highly recommend it to anyone interested in night-sky photography.

Earlier in the day I had hiked up Table Mountain and received a message welcoming me to Internet Canada - "International rates may apply".  I quickly turned my phone to airplane mode, blocking data usage as a safety precaution.

Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) over Mount Shuksan in the North Cascades, North Cascades National Park, Washington, USA.
Northern Lights over Mount Shuksan
So when more cars started arriving at the parking lot around midnight on a weeknight, I began to suspect that an Aurora Borealis alert may have been issued that I wasn't privy to.

I've only photographed the Northern Lights once before - in Jasper National Park in Canada.  The circumstances were much the same.  I got up in the middle of the night to photograph the milky way and noticed some rather bright clouds off in the distance.  I composed a shot to include them and the results came back green on my display!

The same sort of clouds were present this night, but they were so bright I figured it was simply light pollution from the Bellingham area (yes, my direction was a little off as I thought I was looking west, not north).  The stars were more numerous now, so I composed an image of Mount Shuksan once again and noticed a red plume of light in the results.  The red in the sky was not viewable to the naked eye.  Interesting!

The Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) over Mount Shuksan in the North Cascades, Washington, USA.
Aurora Borealis over Mount Shuksan.
I changed from a vertical to horizontal composition to include more of the horizon in the sky and noticed the light seemed to growing and that the funny clouds I had seen were indeed the green of the Northern Lights!  It was a good night to be out with camera in hand!

So what is the Aurora Borealis?  The bright dancing lights of the aurora are actually collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth's atmosphere.  The most common auroral color is a pale yellowish-green.  Rarer is the red aurora, which I was fortunate to capture for the very first time (again, I couldn't actually see it).

Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) over the North Cascades, Washington, USA.
Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights).
The Aurora Borealis is predictable as it usually follows a solar magnetic storm on the sun.  The chance of visibility is measured by the kp index.  It's a 0 - 9 numbering system known as a planetary index.  You can download a phone app to follow this, and even receive alerts when the kp number rises in your area.  I use the app "Aurora Alert" for this.  Typically, you need a kp number of 5 or greater in the Puget Sound area to see the lights.  The larger the number, the more prevalent in the sky the lights will be.

Admittedly, I am relatively new to night-sky photography and still have a lot to learn.  But I am finding it fascinating and rewarding!

As always, thanks for looking!

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