When I moved to the Puget Sound region a decade ago, I had only seen the Aurora Borealis in photos, and considered it one of those once-in-a-lifetime awe-inspiring encounters that I would only experience vicariously. But, amazingly enough, the Northern Lights can be seen in Western Washington when certain conditions are met. When visible to the naked eye, they usually look like clouds at the horizon, most often white, but brighter than usual. Using long exposure on a camera with a tripod, photographers can capture the color of this magnetic disturbance in the atmosphere that our eyes can’t. And I've now "seen the light(s)"!
In September 2020, my husband and I stumbled across a Zoom presentation on chasing the Aurora Borealis in Washington by a Whidbey Island photographer, who moderates a Facebook page for Aurora activity. We tuned in and learned a lot of scientific terms, most of which have left me, but the few that stayed are key in determining whether the Northern Lights might be visible.
The first gauge is the KP index, a measure of the level of geomagnetic activity in the Earth's atmosphere caused by solar wind. Here in Western Washington, if it's clear and the KP is 5—on a scale from 1 to 9—we might be able to see a light glow near the horizon, usually green, but sometimes purples, pink, or even reds. When the KP climbs to 5, folks are constantly monitoring space weather and checking aurora alert apps. When the KP climbs to 6 or 7 people are seriously aurora chasing. All over the state, they’re hopping into cars and driving to areas with wide open views to the north and northeast—usually the shorelines here in Puget Sound. They’re also looking for dark skies, which is increasingly rare in our urban and even rural environments where people leave lights and porch lights on all night.
The second indicator we photographers use to decide whether it's worth bundling up and going outside (it was a warm 40 degrees last night) is the BZ, a measure of the solar wind’s magnetic orientation. Up at high latitudes, you can see the Northern Lights with a positive BZ, but at Seattle’s and Union’s (where I live) 47-degree latitude, the BZ needs to be negative to see color. In the half dozen occasions I’ve shot photos of the Aurora Borealis from home, the BZ has been bouncing up and down between positive and negative, so the sky show was sporadic.
Yesterday there was lots of chatter as the KP climbed to 7 in the early afternoon. People like me waited impatiently all day long to see if the numbers would hold until dark. A possible solar storm had been predicted for Friday night into Saturday but nothing for Thursday, so we were all surprised. The day had been rainy with a bit of clearing just before sunset. At 8:40 p.m. when it was finally astronomical twilight, but not full dark, I went out on our deck to take a test shot in the drizzle. We live on the water and are extremely fortunate to have a wide-open view from north to southwest ringed by the Olympic Mountains and the southern tip of the Kitsap Peninsula that block the horizon but make a fabulous backdrop.
My test shot revealed a completely cloudy sky dyed purple. I knew the Aurora was out there and I wanted to see it. The rain picked up, so my husband and I tried watching an episode of Community, pausing every 5 minutes while I ventured out to snap another photo.
By 8:50 there was a tiny gap in precipitation and clouds, and bright pink sky. My husband is always more realistic about my obsessions than I am, so when the credits rolled, he turned off the TV, brought me tea and snacks, kissed me goodnight, darkened the house, and headed upstairs to bed knowing that I would be in and out, checking the sky for hours.The sky was clear to the west by 9:15 p.m. and I was on the deck adjusting camera settings when I noticed a bright white cloud or contrail quickly creeping above our house and heading out across the water. I turned my camera from north to west and began to snap pictures, when I heard my husband call out from our bedroom balcony, “I think something's happening up here!” And he was right. We were STEVE (Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement), a river of ion-heated particles that moves east to west across the sky. It's even more rare than the Aurora, and not much is yet known about it. Unlike the aurora, this was clearly visible with the naked eye, a wide white ribbon that flowed across the Bay, touched down behind the Olympic mountains, and soon disappeared.
Last night’s numbers were amazing. The KP climbed to 8 and the BZ dropped to minus 14 and stayed there for hours. I had never seen a KP higher than 7, or a BZ lower than 11, in the short time I’ve been on Aurora watch. And as I kept refreshing the Washington state Aurora Facebook page, I quickly found out that others had not seen numbers like this either. The sky was glowing with color, but my camera wasn’t capturing much movement, no iconic pillars. I'd never wanted to leave my perch at home during previous Aurora sightings, since they’ve always been fleeting. But with these strong numbers, I decided to make the mile drive to our local boat launch. I walked down the slippery cement ramp until I came to the water’s edge. It was still quite cloudy, and there lots of exterior lights on, and it was difficult to take a good picture. By that time, my battery died, and my spare was at home on a table, so I returned home, changed batteries, and took off again.
This time to a large open field just under two miles away that is owned by local farmers who open their land to game hunters during the appropriate hunting seasons. On the hunt myself, I walked into the wide-open field with my camera and my book lamp around my neck (much easier to use than a headlamp) and took some photos of soft pink and green sky fringed by trees as the sound of wild ducks and geese wafted in the wind.
Driving home, I stopped at my brother-in-law's house driveway (less than a mile from our house) and took some pictures to show him what he was missing––beautiful greens and pinks with the Skokomish River glowing in reflection, and plenty of power-lines, which can’t be put underground, or they’d be underwater.
I pulled over twice more to scout locations for future Milky Way shots to the southwest, which turned out to be blocked by trees and bushes in all directions. Walking toward my car the last time, huge white and pale green pillars appeared in the sky, towering high above, visible with my aging eyes! I set my camera in the road and took two pictures which turned out to be my favorite of the night. The power of the aurora and the power of electric lines filling the frame.
After that, I raced home and back to my deck. The pillars were still visible, some so tall I couldn't fit the tops in my wide-angle lens without vertical orientation. The tide was out, so I climbed down a ladder over our seawall, and out onto the beach, stepping over rocks and oyster shells for a wider view of the pillars. The pillars danced for another 15 minutes before, before the sky calmed again.
With all good things it's hard for me to know when to quit. What if I miss something epic? Nearing midnight, the KP was 7, which is an incredible number for Western Washington. The BZ was minus seven (great), the sky was still glowing green, but the pillars had gone, and more clouds had come in. At 12:30 and 1:00 and 1:30 a.m., folks were still posting pictures from around the region, but it was cloudy at home. As my husband says, I have a bad case of Astro-FOMO. So even though I didn't know when to stop, the sky finally made it clear and began raining in earnest. It was 2 a.m. and I thought I’d sleep, But when I crawled into bed, my stomach began to rumble. Time for a snack, and a little more Facebook scrolling of incredible Aurora photos. It was 3:30 AM by the time I finally closed my eyes.
I always thought I’d have to visit Iceland, Alaska, or Norway to glimpse the Aurora Borealis. But here was the strongest geomagnetic storm in 6 years, visible right outside my door. An epic night for this amateur astrophotographer. Thanks for sharing the amazement with me.
I began blogging about "This or Something Better" in 2011 when my husband and I were discerning what came next in our lives, which turned out to be relocating to Puget Sound from our Native California. My older posts can be found here.