Category Archives: Landscape Photography

Re-encountering STEVE in Alaska

On September 1st, 2019 I crept outside into the dark night of Alaska to meet STEVE and it and I had a photo shoot together. It had been awhile! But usually once a year we have a chance to get a look at a each other. I’m not talking about my cousin Steve, in fact, STEVE is not a person at all. STEVE stands for Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement.

The last time I wrote about STEVE it was to dispel the mis-classification of these images online as “Proton Arcs”. At that time scientists were grappling with what caused this mysterious form of the aurora. There was uncertainty on why it showed up white instead of green and what form of energy would cause the aurora at all. Although it has likely been observed by sky watchers since the point where humans could comprehend its beauty it was relatively new to science and only really entered the literature in 2016.

STEVE, Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement, Alaska, Hoonah, Aurora, Northern Lights
The green light intermingled with pink and white ribbons is a classic form of STEVE and is what is typically seen by the human eye and camera.

Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement

” Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement ” – that’s quite a load of Jargon! However, once you understand how these auroras form it makes mores sense.

Typical auroras are formed when energy from the sun collides with nitrogen and oxygen in our atmosphere. The collision results in green or red light being let off. However, based on recent science published on Space.com STEVE forms when charged particles are super-heated outside of the “auroral zone”. The particles emit the white and pink light we see on the ground.

STEVE, Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement, Alaska, Hoonah, Aurora, Northern Lights

If you are still a bit unclear remember that light occurs as a physical process – it’s the release of energy. For instance when you heat an electric cooking stove the orange light emitted is the release of energy. STEVE is a bit like a monstrous electric coil in the sky!

A Gallery of STEVE

I think my latitude in Southeast Alaska is a hotspot for STEVE. I have observed it 5 times to date since 2016. I recently added my photos to a database of STEVE observations. The images below are from the same night as the images above. You can see a short timelapse of STEVE that night by going to a video on my Facebook page.

The Rest of the Show

STEVE shows up on the biggest nights of aurora. It definitely seems to be linked to high amounts of energy coming in. During the nights and mornings of August 30 – September 1st the Aurora was visible almost anytime it was dark.

Aurora, Northern Lights, Icy Strait Point, Alaska, Hoonah, Green
After STEVE Disappeared the Northern Lights flooded across the sky

On the second night of the show I focused less on photography. My wife and I curled up on a blanket on the beach and watched the lights dance overhead. We had some pretty amazing coronas for Southeast Alaska!

Aurora, Northern Lights, Icy Strait Point, Alaska, Hoonah, Green
Tall spires of Aurora over beach grass at Icy Strait Point

I’ll be keeping an eye out for any further science and revelations on STEVE. I hope to see it again!

In the land of Redrock and Stars

Zion National Park is an oasis in the desert. It is a hot and green paradise carved and nourished by the Virgin River which has etched tirelessly through countless layers of rock and minerals to form its massive canyons. Whether you are enchanted by its beauty, blown over by its grandeur, enticed by its challenges, or drawn to its dark skies you will find its amazing landscape and history will quickly win you over.

Zion National Park, Utah, Landscape, Photography
A sunset ripples off sandstone and Douglas fir in Zion National Park.

Sandstone

The sandstone structures of Zion Canyon are always beautiful, but never more so than during sunrise and sunset. During the low-sun the burnt orange canyons light up like embers. One highlights of the trip was ascending Angle Rocks. We were fortunate to start at sunrise, and it was fascinating to watch the changing shadows and morphing colors created by the rising sun.

Angels Landing, Zion National Park, Utah, Landscape, Photography
A look from the top of Angel Rocks, Zion National Park. The Virgin River lies below us.
Angels Landing, Zion National Park, Utah, Landscape, Photography
Massive shadows cast by the rising sun. It takes a long time for the sun to make it to the valley floor!
Bryce Canyon, Landscape, Stars
Bryce Canyon really showed off the red colors! I made this image in the blue-hour of the day to get the rich saturation of colors shown here.
Angels Landing, Zion National Park, Utah, Landscape, Photography
A pre-sunrise look at the sandstone bluffs in Zion National Park.
Being outside the park was nearly as impressive on the inside. From this vantage point you can see inside Zion National park including the West Temple and other famous features.

History

While in Zion we visited history and made some history too! The ghost town of Grafton was a stark reminder of how difficult life was for settlers traveling west. Disease, conflicts with Native Americans, and stochastic events like floods and storms killed many. The interpretive sign in Grafton highlighted that two young girls were killed by a falling swing. There were a lot of ways to die in the west!

Angels Landing, Zion National Park, Utah, Landscape, Photography, Grafton
An old cabin in Grafton, Utah.

The Johnson Family converged and left a bit of its soul in the history of Zion. Our three families converged from Alaska, Minnesota, and Montana.

The whole Johnson Family together in the bluffs of Zion National Park taking in a sunset.
Family, Zion National Park, Utah, Landscape, Photography
My brothers family. Love this picture!

Wildflowers

Be wary when viewing wildflowers in Zion – most of them are armed! It was wonderful being in the Park at time when cacti were blooming. Each of the colors was the most vibrant forms of oranges, yellows, pinks, and purples. They were spectacular to see! Early June was an excellent time to see a lot of species of wildflowers. Each of the photos below shows them off in their context.

Zion National Park, Utah, Landscape, Photography
A Silver Chola cactus stands in front of bluffs lit by the sunset.
Zion National Park, Utah, Landscape, Photography, Cactus
Abundant pink blooms on a Prickly Pear Cactus.

Stars

The Stars in Zion National Park are : stunning, brilliant, dazzling. As an avid night photographer I was giddy to get out shooting! I was fortunate to have clear conditions and a new-moon to create inky darkness. An added benefit was the comfort of the night – far different than the 92 degree days! Night photography is a relaxing pass time. Long exposures of 20 seconds or more gave me ample time to appreciate the beauty of the star-lit landscape with my eyes and ears, not just through my viewfinder.

Zion National Park, Milky Way, Stars, Photography
A passing car lights up the bluffs of Zion National Park. The car had just passed through the Zion-Mount Caramel Tunnel.
Bryce Canyon, Landscape, Stars
Blue-hour and a welcoming seat in Bryce Canyon National Park.
Zion National Park, Milky Way, Stars, Photography
A lone tree stands sentinel under a brilliant Milky Way. You may recognize this location from the panorama above! The green in this image is from “air glow”, which is a different phenomena than the Aurora Borealis.

Wildlife

I do not think wildlife viewing and birding are primary reasons visitors go to Zion, however, there is ample opportunity for each. My wife and I are avid birders and we were thrilled to add well over a dozen species to our life list and observe dozens of more species. That was very exciting for us, but I won’t bore you non-birders with the details here :). However, one bird of note that you should care about is the California Condor. These magnificent and enormous raptors were once nearly extinct with a population of only 22 animals. Thanks to conservation efforts they have slowly made a comeback. A recent success story was the birth of a wild chick just this year! We were floored to see these raptors up close on two occasions!

Zion National Park, Utah, Landscape, Photography, Mule Deer
A large Mule Deer gives me a close examination.
Mule Deer, Zion National Park, Utah, Landscape, Photography
Important to scratch yourself and keep an eye out, too!
A passing Red-tailed hawk. I love the color morphs of these common raptors!
There you have it! A rare California Condor flying right over our heads!

As with so many of the places we visit a single week doesn’t seem like enough time! This trip to Zion was a gateway drug to future visits. I look forward to learning more about desert wildlife, the history and lessons of Native Americans in the land, and to experience its beauty. I hope you have a chance to do the same!

Feeling Grateful on an Autumn Day

Some days are destined to be better than others and due to the probability of the seasons it has a 25% chance of being a day in autumn. There is something magical to the season wrapped into the death, color, and distinct smells it manifests each year. Fall mornings immerse all of your senses: the bite on your nose of frost in the morning, musk of decaying leaves, the sound or crunching leaves, and brilliant colors of foliage make the season like none other.
The magic and of the day started as soon as my eyes opened. I stepped from my bedroom to watch a subtle and beautiful sunrise over Neka Mountain and Port Frederick. As I sipped my coffee and watched from the window the warm colors of low sunlight started from the peak of Neka Mountain and progressed to its base. I smiled and thought through the possibilities of the day. The plan for the day was simple : go fishing and bring a camera.

Sunrise, Port Frederick, Hoonah, Neka Mountain
I enjoyed the sunrise over Port Frederick in Hoonah, Alaska while I sipped on a cup of coffee. You can see the autumn colors of the muskegs near the summit of the mountain

Down in the River

Eight miles out of town Spasski River held the promise of fish and bears. I strolled through a muskeg full of color. 4-leaved, 4-inch tall, Bunchberry Dogwoods had transformed into red fireworks with colors nearing a poinsettia and lingering frost framed the sharp edges of sedges and grass. I crossed out of the muskeg and descended the banks of the river passing giant sentinels of Hemlocks and Spruces. Once in the river the circular ripples in the surface of the water over my fishing hole gave hint to the presence of Cohos below. Peering in I counted fourty 40 or more fish and noted some of them had turned the dark red of the season.
After 15 minutes of fruitlessly flinging my pink fly into the school of Cohos a pair of bears showed up on the river bank. I watched as the sow and cub came closer and stepped into the open so they could see me. The cub trailed closely behind the mother and after a couple of my woops acknowledging I was there they passed into the tall grass of the river bank.

Coastal Brown Bear, Spasski, Spasski River, Icy Strait Point
A sow and cub meanered up the bank of Spasski River. This encounter gave me insight into the cub’s behavior when I observed it later.

When brown fur came into view again I had the privilege of gaining some insight into bear behavior. The cub emerged alone in the tall grass and it was evident it was very nervous. It stood on its rear feet to sniff the air and then sprinted forward in the long grass while looking back over its shoulder as though being chased by shadows. The young bear stood three more times to look and smell for its mother, but she was not to be found. Mother bears have a reputation of being helicopter parents to protect their cubs from aggressive males trying to kill them. It was evident the cub appreciated the protection of the mother and was nervous to be out of her shadow. When I left the cub and sow had not been reunited, but I was sure the sow had not left the cub as isolated as it thought.

Coastal Brown Bear, Spasski, Spasski River, Icy Strait Point
When I saw the cub next it was looking for mom. It stood up to sniff the air several times.

Coastal Brown Bear, Spasski, Spasski River, Icy Strait Point
You can almost see the worry on the cub’s face. It was looking back and forth in the search for Mom.

With the bears on my brain I decided it was best to stop fishing. I needed to be alert and was not keen on carrying Cohos out knowing the bears may interested in them too. I turned my attention to the scene in front of me. Yellow Salmon Berries reflected off the surface of the river. My eye was led down the scene to the flat top of ear mountain presided over the river. It was a special place to be and I was there to enjoy it alone.

Spasski River, Salmon Berry, Yellow, Foliage, Autumn
The colors of Salmon Berries were accented by the presiding presence of Ear Mountain above Spasski River

Spasski River, Salmon Berry, Yellow, Foliage, Autumn
I framed up the tall spruces along the bank to bring your eye into this shot of autumn colors and mountain

The American Marten

Leaving the bears I encountered the next fiercest mammal of the forests of Chichagof Island : the American Marten. I found it in the compromising position of scavenging trash, and snuck closer whenever it dropped into the green garbage can in front of me. I was about 30 feet away when it spotted me and the necessity for me to move closer was negated by the curious creature. Before long it approached me to within 10 feet and was perhaps trying to decide if I was edible. I stood stock still and it curiously twisted its head back and forth to size me up and stared my camera each time it clicked. The Marten, not totally trusting the large bi-pedal in front of it, dashed into the grass several times as though testing to see if I would pursue. Each time it poked its head up from the grass by standing on its rear feet. Finally bored or perhaps hungry it left the grinning human for good.

American Marten, Chichagof Island, Alaska, Southeast Alaska
A curious American Marten stares at me from just a few feet away.

American Marten, Chichagof Island, Alaska, Southeast Alaska
After popping out the grass several times the marten approached closely from my right side and looked directly at the camera as it snapped and clicked.

Muskegs on Fire

Throughout the day I had stopped several times to stare at and admire the incredible reds and oranges of the muskegs. Red leaves of Wild Blueberry plants transformed the floor the muskeg into fire. The read were accented by the evergreen trees sprouting from the muskeg and by the crystal clear blue skies. However, in one place the red colors were especially vibrant, rivalling the reds of the Maple trees that I grew up with in the Midwest. The beauty of that place held me there for a long time as I photographed it and felt privileged to be there.

Muskeg, Bluberry, Red, Autumn, Colors, Foliage
I was astonished by the intenstity of the red in the muskeg. Fiery reds were resplendent!

Muskeg, Bluberry, Red, Autumn, Colors, Foliage
A parting shot. Adios to autumn colors!

Muskeg, Bluberry, Red, Autumn, Colors, Foliage
The sun shines brighly over brilliant red Wild Blueberries

Transition in Suntaheen

From the fiery muskeg I descended to the quenching silence of the Suntaheen River valley. Along the river I found autumn to be in full progress. Red Alders sheltered the slow flowing river with amber leaves. The fallen leaves of those trees covered the rocky river bank like the yellow brick road. Beams of sunlight backlit trickled through the canopy and individually lit some of the fallen leaves. Groves of Devils Club along the river’s bank were turning a vibrant yellow and sunlight poked through their decaying leaves.

Devil's Club, Autumn, Color, Yellow
A Devil’s Club transitions from green to yellow.

Devil's Club, Autumn, Color, Yellow
Sunlight streams through the decaying leaf of a Devils’ Club.

Devil's Club, Autumn, Color, Yellow ,River
Suntaheen river floats lazily by rocks and shores covered in the gold of fallen leaves.

A frost-kissed Oak Fern was stripped of its green cholorphyll, and sunslight streamed through its white skeleton.

In the river I was reminded by of the salmon that had choked its waters only a month before. Scattered ribs, spines, and salmon jaws lay where the carcass had been eaten by a bear or had simply died. The bones were devoid of flesh and provided evidence the fish’s energy had already been absorbed by its sourrounding environment. Its nitrogen and energy mingled with the decaying leaves of the trees above cycling to ultimately feed to tiny fish emerging from the eggs buried in the gravel. Some days are just better than others. On this beautiful day I felt blessed to watch nature, learn something new, enjoy the transition of seasons, and observe the cycle of seasons.

Pink Salmn, Alaska, Jaw, Teeth,
A Pink Salmon’s jaw and its jutting teeth perches along the river. The river bank was littered with dozens of these jawbones from months-old dead salmon.

A Black and White Tour of Pearl Harbor

I need to open up this article with the image below because I’ve never been so moved by the physical evidence of the history of a place than when I stood in Hanger 79 in Pearl Harbor.  In front of me, the huge hanger doors contained a mosaic of blue glass pocked with bullet holes from Japanese planes. These were the bullet holes from bullets that killed our young men on December 7th, 1941. They were the bullet holes that signified the entrance of the United States into the War. They were bullet holes that changed the course of history. They were bullet holes that left me riveted in my place, staring at them, with goosebumps raised on my skin as I contemplated the events of that day and felt their significance.

Hanger 79, Pearl Harbor, Black and White, Bullet Holes
The door of Hanger 79 captivated me. The bullet holes in its window panes meant so many things at once. Death. Politics. War. Hope. Sadness.

My trip to Pearl Harbor was a highlight of the 9 days that I spent in Hawaii. Although I’m no “history buff” it was impossible not to be drawn to the beauty of the place, the gravity of the history, and the snapshot into a different time. From the modern architecture of the U.S.S. Arizona memorial to the brass knobs of the old diesel submarine the U.S.S. Bowfin there were amazing things to behold and think on.

I chose to display all of the images of this article in black and white. I feel it helps convey emotion and bring life to (or maybe preserve or better present?) the old scenes found throughout the Pearl Harbor National Monument.

Remembering the 1,177 of the U.S.S. Arizona

When you arrive at the U.S.S. Arizona memorial you do so with the understanding that it is a gravesite. The bones of over 900 American Sailors and soldiers lay underneath you in the bombed hull of that giant battleship. Their bodies were a majority of the 1,177 that perished on board when the Japanese attached.  The gravity of how many people that is hits you as you walk through the memorial and arrive at the granite wall covered in their names. Towers of them. Rows of them. The power of the place was amplified by the respect each visitor showed through their silence. The lack of crowd noise made it easy to dive into your own thoughts.  It was certainly the most powerful war memorial that I have personally visited.

USS Arizona, Pearl Harbor, Black and White
The names of the 1,177 sailors and soldiers that died on the U.S.S. Arizona

USS Arizona, Pearl Harbor, Black and White
All of the visitors remain quiet and pay their respects to the fallen. They toss flowers into the water in tribute and remembrance.

 

U.S.S. Bowfin : A Giant Timecapsule

USS Bowfin, Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Black and White
The old meters and instruments in the U.S.S. Bowfin were so iconic to the era. It was fascinating to be in that timecapsule.

I was most struck by the U.S.S. Bowfin because of its glimpse back in time. In many ways, the giant brass valves and analog meters reminded me of something I may find in my  grandpa Gil’s old shop. The hull of that diesel submarine were like a giant time-capsule for the instruments within.

USS Bowfin, Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Black and White
Turning off the air to the officers quarters – I wonder which of the personnel were given that much power!

Beyond my fascination with the instruments it was incredible to think about operating in such an small, enclosed environment. People were quite a bit shorter on average 70 years ago, and I don’t think they built the submarine for my 6’3″ frame. I was constantly ducking through hatches and pipes to keep my head from colliding with the solid hull of the boat.

The gallery blow shows of the boat from stem to stern. Click any of the images to make it larger and scroll through them.

The Mighty Mo

Mighty Mo, Missouri, Hawaii, Oahu, Pearl Harbor, Black and White

On board the U.S.S. Missouri we received a tour showing off the incredible military prowess of the U.S. battleships as well pivotal pieces of history that occurred on her decks.  The first thing that becomes apparent is that everything is bigger on an Iowa-class battleship. Each gun was so enormous that it becomes impossible to understand the physics of a 66 foot barrel firing a 19inch round over 10 miles.  The ship is 108 feet wide, weighs 45,000 tons, and walking bow to stern 6 times will bring you over a mile.

Mighty Mo, Missouri, Hawaii, Oahu, Pearl Harbor, Black and White
Military prowess on display : each shell fired fro the guns of the Mighty Mo weigh as much as car – about 2,000 pounds each!

Mighty Mo, Missouri, Hawaii, Oahu, Pearl Harbor, Black and White
The giant, 66′ guns of the U.S.S. Missouri

End of the War

The U.S.S Missouri engaged in 3 wars, but it may be most famous as the site where Japanese leaders surrendered completely to end the second World War on September 2nd, 1945. At the exact location of the signing you can view copies of the documents and place you feet in history. A very powerful place to stand in!

Mighty Mo, Missouri, Hawaii, Oahu, Pearl Harbor, Black and White
Replicas of the surrender documents that ended WWII

The exact place on the decks of the USS Missouri where the surrender documents were signed.

Mighty Mo, Missouri, Hawaii, Oahu, Pearl Harbor, Black and White
The signing of the papers ending the war.

Lower Decks

Mighty Mo, Missouri, Hawaii, Oahu, Pearl Harbor, Black and White
Japanese pilots and their stories are featured as part of the history in Mighty Mo’s museums.

In one of the museums in the ship, an entire section is dedicated to the Japanese Kamikaze pilots famous for flying their planes into US warships. The Missouri had a very close scrape with many of these suicidal pilots. Rather than anger though I only felt sympathy for these pilots. The letters they wrote to their families conveyed how a sense of country, pride, and nationalism compelled them to commit the deeds they did.  This was driven by misinformation spread by the Japanese government.

Throughout the belowdecks of the ship, much is maintained as it was in WWII, Korean War, and Gulf War. This included mess galleries with scenes from the 40’s and offices with scenes from 90’s. Each gave perspective to the eras the ship was used in.

A trip to Pearl Harbor is an opportunity to put your feet directly in the steps of history. I feel privileged to have visited there to build my connection that place and time. It gave me opportunity to reflect on the past and to think of my own Grandfathers that participated in the War after the events of Pearl Harbor. I hope these images helped you understand the importance of this place that you should visit and see first hand if you are able.

Birding Oahu and The Big Island

In the South Pacific, the islands of Hawaii emerge like green jewels from the vast ocean. For many tourists these islands offer beaches and relaxation and forested hikes. Throughout these habitats are  dozens of species of birds that have evolved on the island and live nowhere else in the world. Known as “endemic” species they contribute to the biodiversity and beauty of the place and also to the allure of the islands to birders. There are also a multitude of stunning species that have been introduced from foreign countries through Hawaii’s long history of travelers and agriculture.  Last there are the migrants – birds that live in Hawaii each winter and feed in its rich forests.

Birding Hawaii for the first time is certain to add many species to your “life list” and after a week of casual birding my wife and I were thrilled at the chance to see some of these winged wonders.

Endemics Species

Endemic species are often highly evolved to fulfill a certain niche. This means they often rely on a certain food source or nest in a certain area. They are highly specialized and are susceptible to habitat destruction, climate change,  and competition from introduced species. These birds did not evolve with mammalian predators and have felt the pressure of cats and mongoose which came with humans. According to ABCbirds.org, 95 of 142 endemic Hawaiin bird species have gone extinct since human arrival. Of the 44 remaining species, 33 are on the endangered species list and at risk for extinction. These statistics have prompted many studies and efforts at restoration. Hopefully efforts will successfully save some of these beautiful species. Certainly the liklihood of extinction means birding Hawaii now may be your best time to see some of the species before they disappear forever. We only saw several endemic species and hope to pursue these more on our next trip to Hawaii.

Mongoose, Hawaii
Mongoose are introduced and have helped lead to the decline of endemic birds.

Cat, Hawaii
Cats pose a serious threat to Hawaiin endemic birds.

Introduced Species

Hawaii has a long past of habitat destruction and modification from humans. In the 1830s, the first successful sugar cane plantation was planted in Hawaii and “cane” plantations spread like wildfire from there. For nearly 180 years the cane plantations burned through acres and produced huge amounts of product. In 2016 the last cane plantation shut down.  However, that industry, development, military activity, and travelers introduced dozens of birds, plants, insects, and mammals. Many of these birds thrived in the warm and gentle climate and in time competed with the endemic species that lived there. We had an opportunity to see a wide sampling of these species on while birding the Big Island and Oahu.

Migratory Species

Of all the migratory species that we observed the Bristle-thighed Curlew was certainly the highlight! Very little is known about the habits of this bird, but they breed in northern Alaska and winter exclusively on islands in the south pacific. It was pretty remarkable to see them walking around the golf course near Kona!

Birding Hawaii made me realize again how connected birds make the world. Regardless of the distance and expanse they have to cover they are able to connect regions like the Bristle-thighed Curlew connects Hawaii and Alaska.  I cannot wait for the next time that I bird those gorgeous islands.

Top Shots 2017

2017 is officially in the books and it has been a tremendous year! Thank you to all who follow along on this blog or at www.facebook.com/ianlww! Your engagement in my work has been amazing! Your support is one of reasons  the reasons that I stay out late shooting the Aurora Borealis and get in front of bears with my camera. This gallery is features my  “Best of Photography 2017” and I hope you enjoy. I’m looking forward to bringing you more in 2018!

Cheers,

Ian

The Lights and ‘Bergs of Yakutat, Alaska

In the north end of Southeast Alaska lies Yakutat, Alaska. The community sits in a cathedral of mountains that make up Kluane National Park and Reserve. Among its peaks, Mt. Saint Elias soars to over 18,000 feet, earning it the title of second highest mountain in the U.S. and Canada.. All of the mountains are snow covered and laced with glaciers. They create remarkable, never ending scenery when the sun is shining and at night they provide a remarkable backdrop for the Northern Lights.

Yakutat Glacier, Aurora, Iceberg, Northern Lights, Alaska
An iceberg floats under the Northern Lights in Harlequin Lake.

Forty-five minutes outside of Yakutat plus a 20 minute hike will bring you to Harlequin Lake. The lake is at the outflow of Yakutat Glacier, possibly the fastest retreating glacier in the world, which dumps a constant supply of ice into it the lake’s waters. We arrived at 10PM as the aurora was starting to intensify into a solid green band. Icebergs floated in the lake like ice cubes in a drink. They were  about 30 feet from shore which left me in a dilemma – go into the lake to bring the icebergs closer in my photos, or be happy with images from the shore? As the aurora exploded overhead into pinks and greens it made my choice clear.

My boots and then socks came off quickly and I sucked in my breath as I stepped into the frigid water. It crept over my knees and then to my mid-thighs before I finally stopped wading in. The aurora was still dancing overhead and the adrenaline kept my mind off my numbing feet. I stepped out of the water a few times to warm up, but was forced back into the water by the beauty of the combination of ice and aurora. The fifth time back in the water was nearly unbearable! I finally conceded that it was time to warm up, not knowing the climax of the night would come after I put my boots back on.

Yakutat Glacier, Aurora, Iceberg, Northern Lights, Alaska

When a glacier “calves” a chunk of ice breaks from it and crashes into the water forming a bouncing baby iceberg. It was evident from the gigantic sound coming from across the lake, that Yakutat Glacier was calving off a behemoth chunk of ice. The cannon-like roar that boomed across the lake accented the dancing Northern Lights overhead. The goosebumps stood up on my arms from the power of the moment. It was a fitting end to one of coldest and most memorable nights of Northern Lights watching that I have done.

Yakutat Glacier, Aurora, Iceberg, Northern Lights, Alaska

The aurora storm (kp5) lasted for another night and aligned with clear skies – a two night feature of cloudless skies which is unusual for Yakutat in October. There are many areas close to town that are devoid of light pollution, and I departed to Grave Yard Beach outside of Yakutat which is most famous for its surfing.  Adding to the sound of the gentle surf, the ocean-side location provided open skies for the aurora to dance, reflections in the sand, and a moonrise over the mountains. Whenever I return to Yakutat again, it will be impossible not to think of these two remarkable nights in the darkness and under the lights.

Yakutat Glacier, Aurora, Iceberg, Northern Lights, Alaska
“The Double Dipper” – Ursa Major reflects in the sand and shines in the sky.

Yakutat Glacier, Aurora, Iceberg, Northern Lights, Alaska Yakutat Glacier, Aurora, Iceberg, Northern Lights, Alaska

Did You Just See A Proton Arc?

A proton arc is oftentimes described as a broad band of diffuse aurora. If you do a Google Image search for “Proton Arc” a plethora of beautiful images depicting a purple, red, green, or pale band of aurora will greet your eyes. Go ahead, really, search it, I can wait. Or, you can visit this website at Spaceweathergallery.com.

I had the pleasure of seeing this pale phenomenon in Juneau on September 20th, 2016 for the first time ever. In the scene, the aurora swirled to the north in front of me over mountains.  However, a  pale, confined, band of aurora ran perpendicular to the northern display, and stretched far to the south past a large, brilliant moon. In my camera it was cool blue/white in color and was in stark contrast to the green aurora that played on the northern horizon over the mountains of Juneau.  I posted the image to an aurora group on Facebook and labeled it a “proton arc” as so many before me had done. However, I received an interesting response from renowned aurora researcher Neal Brown – a true “proton aurora” is nearly undetectable by the human eye and the concept of a “proton arc” is a widespread misconception. The disagreement between the science and the public perception set my wheels turning, and even though I am not an aurora scientist, I would like to dissect why proton arcs are not truly visible.

Proton Arc, Hoonah, Alaska, Aurora Borealis
On September 20th, 2016 I thought I saw a “proton arc” in Juneau, however, it seems my misunderstanding of this auroral phenomenon is the same of many non-scientists.

There are two ways that auroras may be formed. Most auroras are formed when excited electrons collide with oxygen or nitrogen or if protons collide with nitrogen or oxygen. Electrons which are lighter and have a lot of energy result in the traditional, dancing auroras. Electron auroras emit light at many wavelengths including 630nm (red) and 427.9nm (blue). The second way that auroras can form is when protons collide with nitrogen and oxygen. The proton collisions result in emissions of 656.3nm (red) and 486.1nm (blue) (Lummerzheim et al. 2001).  Separation of these light bands are difficult because at 656.3 the emissions require a precise instrument to differentiate them from the electron aurora. The same can be said of the emissions at 486.1 which are nearly indiscernible from the electron emissions.  To quote Neal Brown’s response in the aurora group, “To prove it is a true proton arc one would have to use some sort of spectral discrimination to see if it contained only 656.3 and 486.1 nm emissions”. Aurora researcher Jason Ahrms had this to say in a detailed Facebook post – “We don’t use color, location in the sky, how long it’s been there, or anything like that to identify a proton aurora.”. This means that simply looking at an aurora with your eyes is not enough to determine if it is a proton arc – so why is it so commonly mislabeled. The mistake is likely an innocent use of scientific jargon; those posting the images (like me) simply did a brief search to confirm what they saw before spreading the lie themselves.

A chart of the light spectrum. Copyright : http://techlib.com/images/optical.jpg
A chart of the light spectrum. Copyright : http://techlib.com/images/optical.jpg

 

The Aurora Borealis shows off a pale display in Hoonah, Alaska which is often identified a "Proton Arc"
The Aurora Borealis shows off a pale display in Hoonah, Alaska which is often identified a “Proton Arc”

Although it is impossible to detect a proton aurora with your eyes, they have been successfully photographed once identified with instrumentation. Tony Phillips of Spaceweather.com discussed the phenomena with University of Alaska Fairbanks Researcher Jason Arhns.  His image below shows how difficult true differentiation between electron and proton aurora is. Where the proton arc has been identified is barely discernible from the aurora.

This proton arc was captured by Jason Ahrns of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. The region fo the proton arc was determined from spectral instruments, but as you can see it is very similiar in form to electron auroras. Image copy right to Spaceweather.com

It was interesting to realize that my perception of what a proton arc was had been so wrongfully influenced by what I saw online. However, if the pale auroras being captured by photographers (like the photos below) are not truly proton arcs, what are they? Incredibly, as Jason Ahrns explains, to date there are is no known explanation for these pale, elusive aurora displays! They are a new opportunity for scientific exploration in the aurora research arena. I hope they keep us posted.

 

Citations:

http://pluto.space.swri.edu/image/glossary/aurora2.html

Lummerzheim, D., M. Galand, and M. Kubota. “Optical emissions from proton aurora.” Proc. of Atmospheric Studies by Optical Methods 1 (2001): 6.

news.spaceweather.com/protonarc/

 

Sightseeing Sitka, Alaska

Sitka, Alaska is known for its mountains which sprout from the ocean and provide a stunning backdrop to the fishing boats which constantly traverse its water. However, Sitka averages 87 inches (7.25 feet) of rain per year which means it is constantly cloudy. It was pretty lucky that our first visit to this scenic city coincided with 3 days of sunshine! We were blown away by the juxtaposition of mountains and ocean. A series of fortunate events allowed us to explore enjoy the region and my camera was constantly clicking.

Mountains and Sunsets

We stepped off our short, 40-minute, flight from Hoonah to Sitka and received an invite. My pilot was an avid hiker and wanted to bring my wife, Kassie, and I out hiking at Mosquito cove. After an instant “yes” on our part  we were on our way. The coastal drive brought us to the edge of town (Sitka only has about 17 miles of road), and in short order we were on the trail to Mosquito Cove. Tall spruces provided a high canopy and the loamy smell of the undergrowth mixed with the salty-fresh air of the ocean. The rocky coast reminded me of the shores of Maine, except the tall mountains made it distinctly Alaskan. A colorful sunset met us at the end of the hike and graced us as we returned to the trail head. An amazing way to start our time in Sitka!

The next day we ventured to the top of Harbor Mountain. Winding switchbacks made me a bit car-sick, but the big payout was the views from the top. The many islands of the Sitka region lay below us and the blue skies allowed for miles and miles of views.

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Blues skies reflect off a pool on Harbor Mountain, Sitka, Alaska.

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The sprawling bays and Islands surround Sitka, Alaska as seen from Harbor Mountain.

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I was struck by the character of this dead tree in the alpine on Harbor Mountain, Sitka, Alaska.

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A colorful sunset puts Mount Edgecumbe in shadows in Sitka, Alaska

The Aurora Borealis and Night Skies

The clear conditions in Sitka happened to align with a level 5 aurora forecast. I knew the only place that I wanted to go was to the dark skies and huge vistas of Harbor Mountain. The Northern Lights began almost as the sun went down and stretched far to the south over Mount Edgecumbe.  By 10:30 PM the aurora was far overhead and dancing in incredible sheets of green and pink. I was blown away by its presence over the oceans and landscape.

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The moonless night in Sitka, Alaska made the Milky Way shine. I caught this shooting-star, whose tail stretched long in the sky.

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The Milky Way over Harbor Mountain, Sitka, Alaska.

On the Wing

The flight from Sitka to Hoonah was the capstone to a remarkable trip. The sunny conditions persisted and showcased tall mountains, alpine lakes, colorful bays, and long fjords.

First Impressions of Hoonah, Alaska

Incredibly I have been in Hoonah, Alaska for an entire week already. There is so much to see, learn, and do in Southeast Alaska that I cannot wait to dive into life here more fully, but I hope to give you a small taste of what I have experienced up this point and foreshadow future opportunities.

Seeing as the community is along the rich waters of Port Frederick and the Pacific Ocean there is strong interest in the cycles of fish. The chatter throughout town is that the herring will be here any day and will fuel an entire diverse ecosystem. Once they arrive the whales, salmon, halibut, eagles, bears, and much more will all follow in short order. Four types of salmon may be commonly caught by simply casting a spoon from shore, and if you have a boat, the opportunity of a 300 pound halibut is just a stones throw away. I was told that whales bubble feed underneath the docks on the Hoonah Harbor. The waters here are so clear that if they are near the docks you can likely watch their underwater feeding before they break the surface.  Once the salmon are in the rivers, the highest concentration of brown bears in the world will flock to the rivers to fatten up on salmon for the winter.  All of these wildlife will present photographic opportunities that I cannot wait to shoot!

Clouds and rain are a staple of Southeast Alaska and fuel the temperate rain forests containing mammoth spruces, hemlocks and cedars growing to over 200 feet in height. Some regions of Southeast receive over 200 inches of rain each year and never seem to have cloudless nights. To my delight I was presented with a relative rarity in Southeast Alaska : clear skies. There are very few large towns in Southeast and light pollution is minimal. The conditions are perfect for night photography. I ambled my truck filled with camera gear high above the ocean to Gobbler’s Knob. From there the Milky Way stretched out in front of me and the aurora emanated from the far northern horizon. I listened to the sound of Long-tailed Ducks from the ocean below, the rumbled of diesel boats, and my own heartbeat. Certainly a memorable night more easily expressed through photos! The photographs below are a slice from Hoonah which I look forward to embellishing on and bringing your more of!