Friday, December 30, 2011

2011 in photos

By the month, choosing one photo for each month. This is quite hard for some months.

January: Cold and dark, as January tends to be in interior Alaska. The Sun is almost invariably pretty when it's up. A 3-in-the-afternoon visit to Chena Lakes yielded this shot.

Sunset at Chena flood control

February: Snowy! It snowed a lot in February. Compounded with the rest of the snow that had been piling up since October, my front porch was getting pretty deep.

Front Porch

March: The return of daylight! I drove down to Seward for the heck of it, saw this beached boat. The Sun reflecting off the snowy mountains was blindingly bright next to the shaded black paint, so I did this one as an HDR. I need to spend some more time in this area, it looks like a great place for sea kayaking.

Boat HDR

April: Denali in the springtime. For a few weeks before buses begin running, the park road is open to private vehicles as far as the Teklanika River (mile 30). Lee, Kate and I went on the first open weekend, drove as far as we could, then walked further. It's still the furthest I've been into the park. The cold days give clear views of the big mountain that are rarely seen in summer when all the people are here.

Denali in the distance

May: The weekend before I drove south to Arkansas I went for one last Alaska drive, down to the Denali Highway. It was not yet officially open for traffic, with lots of crazy warning signs suggesting instant death for anyone foolish enough to set foot tire on the road, but I found the road easily passable as far as Tangle Lakes. Saw lots of ptarmigan here, but my favorite shot had to be this one. Captures the feeling of the place perfectly.

Lost in Alaska

June: I spent around an hour chasing one particularly large dragonfly around a field to try and get a good in-flight shot. Dragonflies are fast, and getting it in focus was difficult. The effort paid off; the dragonfly is sharp, the light is good, the exposure is just right, and the out of focus background looks great. I didn't even have to crop it.

Dragonfly on the hunt

July: I stayed in Denver for two weeks where I spent the nights doing science in a private jet over thunderstorms. Look for me in NHK's 'Cosmic Shore' program, coming out on Discovery or National Geographic channel this spring :P I would post one of the sprite images I took with the high-speed camera, but they're all on my hard drive in Alaska, so how about a shot of the plane I flew in instead? Not the best picture I took this month, but probably has the best memories associated with it.

Storms in the distance

August: Driving along the south side of Denali I pull over to a decent view of the mountain, and a couple on vacation in Alaska pull in to see the view, then tell me 'the view was better a few miles back, we're going back.' So I follow them, and they were right, it's the best view of Denali I've ever seen. First you think 'oh, those are some big mountains'. Then you notice the shadow of the big mountain behind them. I ended up chatting with them for half an hour in the grass on the side of the Parks Highway, then we go our separate ways.

Denali Sunset from the south side

September: Aurora season is on! Having recently visited the Chatanika Dredge for the first time, I know I want it as a foreground for some aurora shots, so I head that way one night when the aurora forecast looks good. It ends up being the most memorable aurora I've yet seen, and I shoot for hours - two other guys with the same idea show up to shoot too, I wish I could see what they ended up getting. This picture doesn't even use the dredge, but looks up one of the tailing piles where the aurora appears to be streaming right out of the ground. The bright thing near the ground is the rising planet Jupiter.

Jupiter rising

October: Prime aurora season! Taken from my front porch during a brief break through an otherwise completely overcast sky, this shot currently has almost 20,000 views on Flickr, making it the most popular picture I've ever taken by a good margin.


November: This year I started experimenting with time lapse videos, and by the end of the year I was shooting quite a few of them. This one was taken from the roof of the Science Operations Center at Poker Flat, using an 8mm fisheye lens meant for all-sky cameras.

December: New Year's Eve Eve, driving through the bottoms in Paris, AR looking for something interesting, I spot a Great Horned Owl through the trees. I get a decent silhouette shot from a distance, then tramp off through the woods to try and get closer. The owl is too quick for me, but the sunset ends up being nice and colorful and interesting all on its own. Here, with some random agricultural equipment.

New Year's Eve Eve

Friday, December 23, 2011

Atmospheric Optics: The Glory

Airplane shadow in a glory

Spotted out the plane window over western Arkansas. Well, I said I was going to do more science posts, so why not start with this thing?

It's called a glory because it looks like the archetypal halo around the head of a saint. You see them directly opposite the Sun (so always below the horizon) in clouds of uniformly-sized drops of water. The exact formation mechanism is not known, but we have clues. The light in the center is polarized, so there must be at least one reflection inside the droplet, as well as two refractions (entering the drop and leaving the drop). And obviously, since we see them opposite the sun, the light must be bent around 180º (light going away from the Sun has to be turned completely around to come back to your eye). More sophisticated analysis shows most of the brightness is due to one reflection inside the water drop.

But it's not possible to turn the light 180º! At least, not with only one reflection and two refractions! So the explanation is that the light travels briefly along the surface of the drop as a surface wave. A diagram, and more explanation, can be found here.

A light ray enters one side of a drop and comes out the other side. A different ray enters where the first exits, and exits where the first enters. They interfere with each other, which causes the colored rings.

So the glory occurs directly opposite the Sun, which is the place where your shadow is. Therefore, your shadow will appear right in the center. In the top photo, you can tell I was sitting in the back of the plane. Like rainbows, glories aren't located at a physical place in space - every person sees a different glory. So if you and I were standing side by side looking at a glory, I would see the shadow of my head in the middle and yours off to the side, and you would see the shadow of your head in the middle and mine off to the side. Everyone sees their own glory, and no one else's.


That's the 'natural' picture of it - well, through a nasty, low-contrast aircraft window, anyways. I can make it easier to see by cranking the global contrast way up. The color has not been adjusted:

Stretched dynamic range Glory

Now you can clearly see the structure: Bright in the middle with colored rings outside.

Things which you'd never notice unless you knew to look.

Happy Winter Solstice

Solstice rock don't have a solstice rock?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Visit to San Francisco

Golden Gate and Tree

I went to San Francisco this week for the American Geophysical Union fall meeting. I didn't present anything myself but was credited in a poster and a talk, both related to my sprites research from the summer. Oh, and a few of my photos made it into the talk as well, so that's scientific and photographic credit! Sooner or later I intend to do some science posts on sprites here on the blog. The NHK crew filmed myself and the rest of the sprites science team together as we watched new footage NHK got of sprites from the space station. Word is the TV special about our sprites exploits will air late this spring on either Discovery or National Geographic channel, I'll pass on the word when I hear more.The AGU meeting doesn't make for interesting blog material, but I did find a night to head out to one of the San Francisco beaches and do some nighttime ocean photography, which I really enjoy. First was the ruins of the Sutro Baths:

Sutro Baths and Seal Rocks

Pointy things Under the Sea

Then the rocky beach next door:

Land's End

Shore On the beach

Rocks, big and small

And of course I had to take a few shots of the Golden Gate bridge, though I tried to find a more interesting perspective than the 1000 tourist photos taken every day of this thing. Success or not? You be the judge:

Golden Gate and rocky cliff

I'm back in Fairbanks now. I hope to do a more substantive post soon, including more science, but probably not until this week (finals week!) is over. Enjoy the pictures for now.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Thanksgiving Holiday: Completed


'This pie ain't big enough for the both of us.'

Not big enough for the two of us.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Fox Spring

I, like many interior residents, do not have running water at my cabin. That means every drop of water I use, I have to go get somewhere and carry it back to my place in a big jug. There are several places to get water, but my favorite is the Fox spring. Located in the town of Fox (pop. 350), there are some pipes bringing water from a natural spring to an accessible spot. I think it tastes better than the water you get in Fairbanks, and it's free, and it's so much more fun to go to Fox.

Fox spring hut

There is a three-sided hut built around the pipe outlet, with a light. Over the course of a winter, a lot of ice builds up from steaming and breathing and sloshing. The build up is in the form of fragile crystals on the ceiling and thick layers on the floor.

Fox hut ceiling

There are two pipe outlets, and once your jug is in place, you press and hold the button until it's full.

The button

This is the button you push to make the water come out. Don't try it without gloves. I once lost a quarter-sized chunk of leather off a mitten when I tried to let go.

Incidentally, I lost the feeling in several of my fingers while taking the pictures for this post.

Ain't Alaska neat!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Cold, Dark

Airport light pillars

WTF, right? They're called light pillars, because they look like pillars made of light, which is exactly what they are. The cause is flat crystals of ice floating in the air. If the air is still enough, the crystals float with their flat sides down, and a bunch of them together is effectively a big mirror. So light shining upwards gets reflected back down to your eyeball, and you see light that appears to come from up in the air.

City lights

So basically, any light source which leaks a significant amount of light up into the sky can develop a rod of light above it, which is the same color as the light on the ground. What I find interesting is the different color rods seem to happen at different heights - I don't know if that's a coincidence or not.

Light pillars

Usually this happens when it gets really cold and the air is full of 'diamond dust' ice. So yeah, it's cold out there! Winter happened. The days are getting short (today's sunset was at 3:30 in the afternoon) and word of mouth is that it reached -60ºF at Chena Hot Springs last night. Evidence of the cold is even making its way inside my little cabin:

Window frost

That's the frost accumulation at the corner of my window (inside!). It's also creeping in along the edges of the door, particularly on the metal latch and hinges:

Creeping frost More creeping frost

Must be all cold and lifeless outside, right? Not so! The redpolls started showing up at my feeder about a week ago, and now rival the chickadees in numbers:

Redpoll on a wire

Despite being barely 5 inches long and weighing less than half an ounce, the hardy little guys don't fly south for the winter, preferring to stick it out right here.

Fluttering Redpoll

The male Hairy Woodpecker is still around too! At the northern edge of their range, some of them fly south for winter. I haven't seen this guy for at least a month and assumed he'd done so, but he showed up the other day. No word on whether the female and youngster are still here:

Hairy Woodpecker is still here

The Gray Jays rummage around and occasionally pull surprising things out of the snow, like tater tots:

Gray Jays

What's down there? Found a tater tot.

If they can deal with it, what's your excuse?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Birds: Sharp-shinned Hawk

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Sharp-shinned Hawk, a small woodland hawk and a skillful flyer, weaving through thick forests to snatch smaller birds right off their perches.

Alaska bird checklist: 34/489

Saturday, October 29, 2011

October 24 Aurora


I took this on Monday, when a coronal mass ejection (CME) collided with the Earth's magnetic field. This, in itself, is not out of the ordinary. What is abnormal is for the effects to be seen so far down south. The resulting geomagnetic storm had auroras visible from Arkansas - I had a friend in my hometown call and ask 'Why's the sky red like that?' I, of course, had no clue what he was talking about, and suggested dust or thin clouds lit up by the sunset. :P

From Ontario, it looked like this:

Ozark, AR had yet another view:

It was big news, since this was a brand new experience for most people down there - I must admit, I flipped shit myself when I saw my first aurora last September, and it can still stop me in my tracks, even after seeing countless more.

But those of you who saw it, or even just saw pictures, may be wondering: why didn't it look like the auroras you see in the pictures I take? Well, for one, you're looking at it out on the horizon. Being lucky enough to live under the auroral oval means they're much higher in the sky for me, and consequently much closer. There are advantages to having your aurora overhead*. One is that it's easier to tell the structure - imagine trying to figure out the folds in a curtain from the side compared to looking up from the bottom. Another advantage is that your line-of-sight through the aurora is longer (optical path length) and so the aurora appears brighter.

[*Actually, what matters in both of these cases is not necessarily having the aurora 'up' so much as having it near the magnetic zenith; but for those of us living in the far north, that roughly corresponds to overhead.]

Overhead Aurora

Perhaps more importantly, strong magnetic storms (required to bring aurorae that far south) tend to have auroras dominated by high-altitude reds, which are in a thinner part of the atmosphere - consequently, the aurora produced looks thinner. More normal levels of magnetic activity tends to produce auroras dominated by a lower-altitude green. These occur in a much lower and denser part of the atmosphere, which makes them look more substantial and structured. For example, this timelapse I filmed a few weeks ago:

Compare to this timelapse shot from Ozark, AR on the 24th:

Which is a roundabout way to saying: All aurora sightings are not equal, there are a variety of colors, shapes, and motions for us to explore.

Thursday, October 20, 2011


Falling snow

It stays below freezing most of the time now, and the snow has arrived. At first, only a few intrepid pioneers wafted down to stake their claims among the fallen leaves.

First flakes

Soon the white invaders were arriving in earnest.

Falling snow Falling snow

After that, it didn't take long for everything to be draped in white.

Snowy cabin Snowy trees

The first snow brings a sense of inevitability - it's coming. But there is an excitement carried along with that, with a tinge of danger that makes it all the more intoxicating. People from outside often wonder why someone would want to live in a place where it can go for 2 months without ever rising above 0ºF. Why don't you come see for yourself? It's mostly indescribable. Already there are hints of the special beauty this place has in winter - the mirages on the mountains, the pillars and halos around the sun and moon, the crisp night skies, the light gradients and soft colors you only notice when all other colors are gone. A month from now, those hardy enough to brave the temperatures will be rewarded with a world reduced to fluffy white outlines, delicate fractals of ice hanging anywhere moisture is present, and sunrises that merge with sunsets to create a single four-hour long spectacle of shadow and light.


Yeah, yeah; so it gets cold. To surrender all this because wearing gloves and a coat is too inconvenient? Madness...