You may not have been able to see the northern lights that arced over Western Washington and other northern regions of the U.S. early this morning, but your camera might have caught it.
Space weather forecasters said there was a heightened chance of auroral displays over the weekend, due to a storm of electrically charged particles that the sun shot in our direction a couple of days earlier.
The best strategy is to set a digital camera on a tripod for a long, long exposure – long enough to capture stars in the frame.
That’s why the MtAdams.tv webcam, set up south of the mountain in Trout Lake, Wash., got such great shots. Last night, the camera was set for 30-second exposures at an f/2 aperture and a sensitivity of ISO 1800.
Bainbridge Island’s Jim Reitz created a must-see time-lapse video, including swooping airplanes and ferries that zoom back and forth like the Flash:
Skunk Bay Weather’s webcam, looking north from Hansville on the northern tip of the Kitsap Peninsula, also documented the aurora:
Americans weren’t the only ones who were aurora-challenged over the weekend. German science writer Daniel Fischer said this was “the aurora that nearly got away,” and pointed to a German-language online forum with pictures that showed subtle reddish rays in the northern lights.
In its morning-after recap, SpaceWeather.com said the aurora was better in the southern hemisphere, and particularly in New Zealand. Nevertheless, SpaceWeather.com’s photo gallery had some suitably moody shots from Washington state, including locales around Long Beach and Anacortes.
The local stars of the show were the twitterers at the National Weather Service’s Seattle office, who stayed up all night to monitor the action. Here’s a sampling of tweets and retweets:
— NWS Seattle (@NWSSeattle) July 17, 2017
— Randy Small (@RandySmall) July 17, 2017
— NWS Seattle (@NWSSeattle) July 17, 2017
I made an effort to check out the view around 1 a.m., taking a little point-and-shoot digital camera with me to Mercer Island in hopes of spotting something on the viewscreen. I wasn’t sure I saw anything, but one of my friends on Twitter, James Cook, gave me a helping hand:
It's there – a thin horizontal green band just above the horizon. ("Lightened shadows" 50% in Photoshop Elements.) pic.twitter.com/u5Nz4j6Ikm
— James Cook (@jimcook310) July 17, 2017
To paraphrase “Jaws,” we’re gonna need a bigger camera.
Update for 12:10 p.m. PT July 17: Oca Hoeflein, the man behind the MtAdams.tv camera, explained in an email how the setup came to be:
“The cam has been set up since May of 2014. It is not your typical ‘webcam.’ It is actually a Canon 5D Mark II in a box I designed, that has a full micro-PC running Windows and some special software. The camera has been taking photos 24/7 for three years now, and I have archived all of the images from every day since.
“The original idea behind the camera came because I live in Battle Ground, Wash., and when I wanted to go take aurora photographs, I never knew if the skies were going to show any color until I drove a few hours to a perfect dark place. So I thought, I wish someone just had a DSLR camera pointed north in a dark place and would upload the photos automatically. With my 25 years of IT background and 15 years of photography experience, I was in the perfect place to do such a setup, so I did.
“The setup is a DSLR camera connected via USB to a Windows PC running GBTimelapse software. The photo gets uploaded to my FTP server, then a script runs to resize the photo down to 900px wide, while keeping the higher-resolution one for me to use for print material later. (I print calendars each year to help support the ongoing costs). Then during the daytime, so that the image looks as true to life as possible, I run the image through software called Photomatix to do what’s called tone mapping so that the exposure looks better than just straight off the camera.
“I also grab the metadata from the image so that photographers can see my settings so it will help them take better aurora photos and compare with theirs.
“I shoot just a medium-resolution, 12-megapixel image every five minutes, so it’s around 105,120 images per year.
“Being able to capture things like the fire two years ago was very cool. There was a massive fire on Mount Adams, and I was informed that firefighting efforts were very appreciative to have the camera in the place it was. … They couldn’t fly safely in the evening to check on the fire, but the camera, because of its long-exposure capability, was able to track the south section of the fire remotely.
“It is also popular with climbers for checking conditions. You can also track your climbing party remotely by seeing their headlamps in the evening, again because of the long-exposure capability.”
Be sure to check out the Mt. Adams Cam group on Facebook. Hoeflein said the group’s Facebook page registered 4,100 visitors on Sunday night.