New Years winter storm

A band of clouds envelops the San Francisco Peaks.

A very cold storm system moved across the southwestern states on the last day of 2018 bringing snow to both the usual locations but in the lower elevations and the desert as well.

I awoke before dawn on New Years Day and was greeted with clear skies and a crescent Moon with the planets Venus and Jupiter shining brightly in the eastern sky. I drove out towards Mormon Lake anticipating great—albeit very cold—conditions for some sunrise snow photographs. On the way to the lake I encountered low clouds and patchy fog and there was nothing to be seen upon my arrival. It was already too close to sunrise to head back north or west so my only option was to wait and hope.

Clouds and fog clear away shortly after sunrise to reveal the San Francisco Peaks.
Clouds and fog clear away shortly after sunrise to reveal the San Francisco Peaks.

I missed the sunrise but about 20 to 30 minutes later the clouds cleared and the San Francisco Peaks were amazing. Low clouds and fog remained around the base of the peaks.

Rime ice glows in morning sunshine.
Rime ice glows in morning sunshine.

As the sun rose higher the side-lit rime ice on the wild grasses (i.e., weeds) at the Mormon Lake Overlook began to glisten and glow.

Temperatures were hovering in the low single digits and I was cold after standing around for about an hour. Time for breakfast and hot coffee.

The next day we hiked into West Fork Oak Creek knowing that the trail would be snow packed and there would be a dozen water crossings on ice—hopefully solid enough to support us. After several days of below freezing high temperatures and near or sub-zero overnight temperatures we were hopeful for safe ice.

Natural ice sculptures in West Fork Oak Creek.
Natural ice sculptures in West Fork Oak Creek.
There are several locations where water drips down the cliffs even at these cold temperatures resulting in wonderful icicles and bizarre ice sculptures on the ground.
West Fork Oak Creek.
West Fork Oak Creek.

We hiked to the “end” of the trail where it enters a narrow, rock-walled section of canyon often called “The Subway.” This was our turnaround spot.

Sunlight reflected off canyon walls and then reflected again on the ice.
Sunlight reflected off canyon walls and then reflected again on the ice.
West Fork Oak Creek.
West Fork Oak Creek.

On the way up the canyon we had not run into any other hikers. What a treat!

Comet 46P/Wirtanen, Rocket Launches, and Fog

I went out to the Mormon Lake Overlook early last evening (12/08/2018) to photograph a couple of different events. First was the launch of the ULA Delta IV-Heavy NROL-71 mission from Vandenburg Air Force Base. After that, I planned on pointing the camera up towards Comet 46P/Wirtanen.

Comet 46P/Wirtanen.
Comet 46P/Wirtanen.

Only part of my plans worked out. The launch was scrubbed at T-7 seconds but I didn’t know about that until much later. I just kept shooting a series of 15-seconds exposures pointed towards the western horizon and hoping that I would capture it. No launch—and there was nothing to capture.

But, wait, not so fast! It turns out there was a shallow layer of fog in the Mormon Lake basin and the series of 15-second exposures over a period of about 10 minutes resulted in a nice time-lapse movie of the fog. Unfortunately, the camera was pointed at mostly sky with very little of the ground but I’m happy with the lucky result.

Time lapse showing undulations on the top of the fog layer.
Next, I shot a series of 60-second exposures of the comet. Although the skies were cloudless, there was a lot of moisture in the air. See the discussion above about fog! The presence of this moisture and very thin fog above resulted in very colorful stars. A nice effect.

Light pollution in the night sky.
Light pollution in the night sky.

For the third act, I pointed the camera back down and over the lake basin towards Flagstaff. The fog was dissipating at this time but still shows up well. What also shows up is the large amount of light pollution in Flagstaff. Flagstaff is the worlds First International Dark Sky City but it takes a lot of work to keep the skies dark. I fear we may be losing the battle.

Mormon Lake with Fog, Snow, Rime, and a Glory

A winter storm in late February brought hope again of getting some photographs of the San Francisco Peaks covered in snow. So I departed before sunrise one morning to head out towards Mormon Lake. Because of the warm winter up through mid-February, most of Lower Lake Mary and Upper Lake Mary remained mostly ice free. With very cold early morning temperatures it was no surprise that there was fog over the relatively warm open waters of the lakes. When I left my house, the temperature was about +3°F. When I reached Lower Lake Mary, the temperature had fallen to -10°F—and there was considerable fog.

A shallow layer of fog covers Mormon Lake.
A shallow layer of fog covers Mormon Lake.

It was the same over Upper Lake Mary. I debated whether to change my plans and shoot photographs of the fog over this lake but after viewing the scene I chose to continue to the Mormon Lake Overlook. As I approached the overlook, I could see a layer of fog. Luckily, the overlook was just high enough to be above the fog.

It was a beautiful scene with a shallow layer of fog covering the lake bed and snow on the distant San Francisco Peaks.

San Francisco Peaks as seen from the Mormon Lake Overlook.
San Francisco Peaks as seen from the Mormon Lake Overlook.

After getting a few quick photos I set about to capture a panorama. I shot 12 images: 2 rows of 6 shots. The resulting image is huge and clocks in around 190 megapixels. I can make a print of this that’s 8 feet wide. But I probably won’t because I don’t have a wall large enough for something that big.

It was obvious that sometime during the night the fog layer was much deeper as all the grasses, bushes, and trees were covered with rime ice.

Rime ice coats the grasses and bushes.
Rime ice coats the grasses and bushes.
Rime ice coats the grasses and bushes.
Rime ice coats the grasses and bushes.

The rime created needles that pointed in the direction of the light wind that had been present during formation. As the sun rose above the horizon, the rime caught the light and sparkled brilliantly.

A glory and a small segment of a fog bow are visible on the fog layer.
A glory and a small segment of a fog bow are visible on the fog layer.

So we had fog over the lake bed, snow on the mountain, and rime ice on the grasses. What else? Well, a glory became visible as the sun rose high enough to illuminate the fog layer below me. And a short segment of a fog bow was also visible in the fog layer.

Not a bad day for photography.

Dark skies and the Milky Way

With the moon well past full combined with very clear and dark skies it was time again to do some night sky astrophotography. On an earlier outing, I had taken a few “exploratory” images of potential targets. It was now time to take some longer exposures.

My first target was Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex, a dark nebula of gas and dust that is close to the star ρ Ophiuchi of the constellation Ophiuchus (and located adjacent to the better known constellation Scorpius).

Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex. The planet Saturn is in Scorpio and is located in the upper right of the image.
Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex. The planet Saturn is in Scorpio and is located in the upper right of the image.

My tools for the night were a Nikon D700 DSLR (fairly old camera technology by today’s standards), a Nikon 85mm f/1.8 lens (a short telephoto lens that works well for astrophotography), a tripod, and an iOptron SkyTracker equatorial mount for tracking the stars on long exposures.

I took 10 exposures each of 4-minutes duration and then stacked them using the (free) Deep Sky Stacker application. The resulting image was post processed in Photoshop CS6 using Astronomy Tools v1.6.

The result isn’t bad considering I’m still pretty much an amateur at this astrophotography thing. For comparison, check out this amazing version of the Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex at the APOD site.

The next night was almost as clear so I returned again to my viewing location near Mormon Lake. This time, I used an ultra-wide angle lens (16mm). Here you can see the Milky Way rising in the east with Saturn in Scorpio and visible in the center right part of the image. The Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex is also visible to the right of the Milky Way. The glow in the lower right is from the city of Phoenix—located over 150 kilometers to the south.

Milky Way rising.
Milky Way rising.

While capturing these images I was treated to the yipping of coyotes, hooting of owls, and could hear a small herd of elk grazing in a nearby meadow.