Pictures from the Parks

National Parks, that is. Here are several photographs taken this winter in the National Parks and Monuments that are in northern Arizona.

Sunrise at Wukoki Pueblo, Wupatki National Monument.
Sunrise at Wukoki Pueblo, Wupatki National Monument.
Sunrise at Wukoki Pueblo, Wupatki National Monument.
Sunrise at Wukoki Pueblo, Wupatki National Monument.

These two images were taken shortly after sunrise at Wukoki Pueblo in Wupatki National Monument. A recent snowstorm had brought snow to lower elevations and I was hoping there would be some snow at this location. No snow but the sunrise was still pretty nice.

New snow covers Sunset Crater.
New snow covers Sunset Crater.

Later that morning in Sunset Crater National Monument, where there was new snow, a small amount of snow on the namesake crater helping to reveal its subtle textures.

Low clouds and fog near the Unkar Delta in Grand Canyon
Low clouds and fog near the Unkar Delta in Grand Canyon
Clouds lift out of Grand Canyon.
Clouds lift out of Grand Canyon.

The next two images are from Grand Canyon National Park at sunrise. A recent minor storm had left some low clouds and fog in the lowest reaches of the canyon. As the sun rose higher and the canyon walls warmed the fog was lifted up and out of the canyon producing some eye-level clouds for a brief moment.

Moonrise over North Rim of Grand Canyon.
Moonrise over North Rim of Grand Canyon.

Finally, we have a panorama of the rising nearly-full Moon in late afternoon. Wonderful!

Moonrise over Wukoki Pueblo

Moonrise over Wukoki Pueblo, Wupatki National Monunent.
Moonrise over Wukoki Pueblo, Wupatki National Monunent.

Wukoko Pueblo in Wupatki National Monument is an amazing place. Here is what the National Park Service has to say about the pueblo:

An architect today might win an award for designing Wukoki Pueblo. The corners, angles, and lines of masonry are meticulous. From its base, the eye is drawn skyward to a height that inspires awe of this ancient craftsmanship.

The architecture blends so well with the environment that the building seems to grow out of the rock, disguising where nature’s work ends and handcrafted walls begin. Today these walls stand as a silent tribute to prehistoric people.

I have visited this site many times capturing the Milky Way above it, lightning around it, and sunsets. But I’ve never had a chance to capture the rising [nearly] full Moon until yesterday. The terrain is such that the best time of the year is December when the full Moon is farthest north in the sky. At other times of the year, nearby hills obstruct a view of the Moon until it has risen high in the sky. Even in December, the distant Tloi Eechii Cliffs rise above the horizon. But in this case, they add to the drama of the rising Moon. This was taken the day before the full Moon so that the late afternoon sun could still light up the landscape and the pueblo.

Milky Way and Wupatki National Monument—July 2019

A few nights ago I had an opportunity to photograph the Milky Way under exceptionally clear skies. I wanted to do two things: One was to replicate an image I shot a few years ago and the other was to get a Milky Way/landscape composite with a moonlit foreground.

I headed out to Wupatki National Monument (an International Dark Sky Park) and set up in a dark parking lot with a moonlit landscape. The Moon was still well above the horizon and I took several long exposure images to get a good foreground. After the Moon had set, I shot the Milky Way (using a star tracker to eliminate star trails). Back at home, I would then merge the two images. The result is the image below showing the Milky Way aligned above the distant San Franciso Peaks with mesas rising on either side of the shallow valley.  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.

The Milky Way stands above the San Francisco Peaks in northern Arizona.

After completing this set of images, I moved to my next location to take my final shot. This is a single, 30-second image at high ISO (ISO 3200) with the tripod carefully centered on the stripe down the middle of the road. Comparing this shot with the one taken a few years ago indicates that the older image was blessed (if that’s the right word) with airglow in the lower part of the image giving it a much more interesting character. The newer image lacks this airglow but does have a more interesting horizon.

Road to the Stars II.

And now the North American Monsoon has begun to ramp up across the southwest and clear skies will be a rarity for the next few months. Time to start photographing storms and lightning!

Meteors and Comets

The past few nights have been interesting. On the evening of December 13–14 was the peak of the Geminid meteor shower. This year the expected peak was around 100–120 meteors per hour and various meteor counts appear to confirm that number.

At the same time, Comet 46P/Wirtanen has been getting a lot of attention. On December 16 it made its closest approach to Earth—only 11.5 million km away. That’s about 30 lunar distances for reference.

From SpaceWeather.com: “Although the comet is very close to Earth, it is not very bright. 46P/Wirtanen is a relatively small comet and, thus, barely visible to the unaided eye despite its proximity. It is nevertheless an easy target for digital cameras. Even a short exposure reveals the comet’s spherical form and emerald green hue.”

During the late evening of December 13, I traveled to Wupatki National Monument because of its dark skies. I shot a sequence of photos—each of 30 seconds duration—of the night sky hoping to catch a few meteors. One bright meteor blazed across the sky and I was able to catch part of it before it moved out of the frame of the camera. At the same time, the crescent Moon was setting in the west and gently illuminating Wukoki Pueblo. At the very top center of the photograph is Comet 46P/Wirtanen.

Geminid meteor, Comet 46P/Wirtanen and Wukoki Pueblo.
Geminid meteor, Comet 46P/Wirtanen and Wukoki Pueblo.

After about 1/2 hour of shooting meteors, I shot longer exposures of the comet. On this night, the comet formed a triangle with the Pleiades and Hyades star clusters. The image shown here is from ten 60-second images stacked using Deep Sky Stacker (DSS) and post-processed using  rnc-color-stretch.

Comet 46P/Wirtanen with the Pleiades and Hyades star clusters.
Comet 46P/Wirtanen with the Pleiades and Hyades star clusters.

A few nights later, the comet had moved so that it was between the Pleiades and Hyades clusters. Again, I shot a sequence of 60-second exposures totaling about one hour in duration—this time from the Mormon Lake overlook. The motion of the comet is quite apparent in this sequence of images. The first image shows the motion of the comet against the stars; the second is a time-lapse movie of the same sequence.

The motion of Comet 46P/Wirtanen is seen as a short streak in this one-hour composite image.
The motion of Comet 46P/Wirtanen is seen as a short streak in this one-hour composite image.

Time lapse movie showing the motion of Comet 46P/Wirtanen during a period of one hour.

Comet 46P/Wirtanen is now moving farther from Earth and will slowly dim in brightness but it will remain visible through binoculors, telescopes, and with digital cameras for many weeks or more. There is still plenty of time to see the comet if you haven’t already.

A Transition Season Severe Weather Event

Lightning behind Wukoki Pueble in Wupatki National Monument.

September 1 marks the first day of “meteorological autumn” and it started out with a severe weather event across portions of northern Arizona. Severe storms are more likely during what is often called the “transition season” as we make the switch from the North American Monsoon weather pattern into a fall pattern.

In the transition season the westerlies begin to push southward again as the large area of high pressure over the southwest weakens. Disturbances in the westerlies along with stronger jet-level winds can combine with copious amounts of residual tropical moisture to bring severe thunderstorms to the area.

250 mb pattern for 1200 UTC 01 September 2018. (Image from NOAA/Storm Prediction Center.)
250 mb pattern for 1200 UTC 01 September 2018. (Image from NOAA/Storm Prediction Center.)
Upper air sounding for KFGZ at 1200 UTC 01 September 2018.
Upper air sounding for KFGZ at 1200 UTC 01 September 2018.

A short-wave trough and moderate jet stream were present across Arizona at 1200 UTC 01 September. Monsoon moisture was also present. The first hint that something was up was the development of thunderstorms—some severe—before sunrise. This patch of storms moved to the east and northeast and, in its wake, left a pool of cooler air across northeastern Arizona along with an outflow boundary. Outflow boundaries can often play an important role in subsequent convection with increased severity and rotation as the storm moves across the boundary. (Maddox et al. 1980; Rasmussen et al. 1998)

Afternoon runs of the HRRR model showed storms developing along an east-west line across northern Arizona and that some of these would interact with that boundary, become severe and turn to the right moving southeast. And that’s pretty much what happened. Score one for the HRRR model.

HRRR simulated radar forecast for the afternoon of 01 September. (Animated GIF courtesy of College of DuPage.)
HRRR simulated radar forecast for the afternoon of 01 September. (Animated GIF courtesy of College of DuPage.)
Reflectivity from KFSX radar at 1607 MST.
Reflectivity from KFSX radar at 1607 MST.

Other storms produced very large hail with a report of 2.75″ hail in Holbrook and another of 2.00″ near Tolani Lake.

View of rapidly developing convection east of Wupatki National Monument (Panorama from northeast through south).
View of rapidly developing convection east of Wupatki National Monument (Panorama from northeast through south).

I was watching and photographing these storms from the southern portions of Wupatki National Monument. There was explosive vertical growth in these storms along with some generally unorganized rotation. The storm also developed a rear-flank downdraft. And I was able to hear the “hail roar” (i.e., a roaring sound that originates in the storm cloud caused by large hailstones hitting the ground or colliding in mid-air). I’ve occasionally heard hail roar in High Plains storms but never in Arizona.

Low clouds, fog, and a K-H wave in the cold pool behind the storm.
Low clouds, fog, and a K-H wave in the cold pool behind the storm.
Cumulonimbus mammatus behind the storm.
Cumulonimbus mammatus behind the storm.

Behind the storm, cold outflow dominated and low clouds and fog quickly developed across the low hills of Wupatki National Monument. A broad area of mammatus clouds was also present.

Lightning behind Wukoki Pueblo in Wupatki National Monument.( Single exposure of 1/4 second.)
Lightning behind Wukoki Pueblo in Wupatki National Monument.( Single exposure of 1/4 second.)

And the lightning was impressive.

Lightning map for 01 September 2018. (Courtesy of WeatherBell.)
Lightning map for 01 September 2018. (Courtesy of WeatherBell.)