More Light Pillars!

Thirty-two years on this planet and I’ve only seen this phenomenon three times, and all three times were since moving to the Upper Valley. Light pillars are formed when city lights, or any bright lights I suppose, shine through tiny ice crystals called “diamond dust.” These ice crystals need very cold temperatures, below zero, and require still nights with calm or no wind so they remain suspended in the air. If there’s wind, the crystals get blown around, disrupting the light pillars. They also need enough moisture to form ice crystals, so there needs to be a sufficient source of humidity. All three times we’ve witnessed the light pillars, it has been on relatively early winter nights when the rivers running through town aren’t yet frozen over, so there’s steam rising up from the open, flowing water. We also live near a small ski hill, and it would appear that overnight snow-making contributes to the formation of light pillars nearby.

Usually if I’m awake before sunrise on a weekend, it’s because I’m traveling up to a trailhead somewhere for a day in the mountains. This morning, it was for a very cold (-18F) walk around Lebanon, New Hampshire. While looking at model data and forecast temperatures Friday evening, Ted mentioned it might be a “light pillar night.” We had friends coming to visit and plans to do the ice skating trail on Lake Morey in Vermont, which meant for once we weren’t going to be heading out early to hike, making this the perfect morning to set a 4am alarm and wander the streets until dawn.

Our alarm went off, current conditions indicated cold temperatures and calm wind, so we suited up and started the car. First we scouted lights along the Connecticut River, but didn’t have any luck. Part of the problem too is the lack of good open spaces for views, even in town, since buildings, hills, and trees become barriers to good compositions. Ted continued driving, while I watched out all windows for signs of those elusive beams of light. Finally, through the trees, I got a glimpse of one, so we headed in that direction, hoping for a more open view and to get closer to the action.

After a few shots along the Mascoma River, we decided to see if we could find a better vantage. We drove through some fog and took note of where it was congregating, and started heading out of town. Eventually, we ended up getting a few nice shots from the fields by the high school, just before they started fading out with the approaching sunrise. We stopped for coffee on the way home, and kept the momentum up by processing up these photos, getting laundry done, ice skating several miles and stopping by Storrs Hill for the evening, followed by a late night of catching up with our visiting friends. No wonder I’m so tired.

Another Adirondack Adventure

When you love the mountains, repeating the same hikes never gets old. Each trip brings a new adventure with changing weather, varying trail conditions, and different combinations of people and personalities.

This was my 3rd year organizing the Young Members Weekend at Johns Brook Lodge for the Adirondack Mountain Club, and was once again a fun and rewarding experience. Hikers joined us from as far away as Buffalo, Boston, and Washington, D.C., and we spent Friday – Sunday together in the Adirondack High Peaks. A 3.5-mile backpack in the rain brought us to JBL, where we dried off and spent the rest of the day getting to know each other, planning routes for Saturday, and enjoying music from our “JBL jam band.” One participant even hiked in his violin!

After waking up to French toast and bacon, our group of 26 divided up and set out for our destinations, which included Bushnell Falls, Mount Marcy, Skylight, Haystack, Basin, and Saddleback. My favorite part about organizing this event is allowing for flexibility and individualization, so each person can hike their own hike, summit the mountains of their choice, and be as relaxed or challenged as they’d like – all while making new friends.  

Trail conditions were wetter than any past trip I’ve done along this route to Haystack, and water was just high enough to make brook crossings tricky, prompting many of us to take our boots right off to avoid accidental submersion off the slippery rocks. Wide puddles, deep standing water, sticky mud, and flowing water in the trail, especially up above Slant Rock, forced us to take our time and focus on each step. The last half mile before hitting Little Haystack was like climbing a waterfall, and it was near impossible to make it to Little Haystack without wet feet. We’d been hiking in light rain and mist all morning, so the rocks above treeline ranged from damp to dry, and it seemed like we wouldn’t have a view.

Similar to last weekend’s morning on Algonquin Peak, for a few brief moments while we were on top, the clouds broke up around us, allowing for a view of Skylight in one direction, and an undercast in the other. We snapped photos quickly, as the view disappeared as quickly as it appeared. While it would be amazing to have had another clear, sunny day up there, hiking up into the clouds and watching them swirl around you creates its own unique, dramatic experience, and everyone seemed to enjoy it. Our group descended toward Basin to avoid going down the waterfall of a trail section, and split up at the junction below the summit of Basin. A couple chose to continue over Basin and Saddleback to complete a loop, and others descended back to Slant Rock and met up with one of the Marcy groups for the hike back to the lodge, where the smell of grilled chicken welcomed us. Another night of games, music, and attempts at stargazing as the clouds cleared, and we’re already talking about next year.

Light Pillars

You know it's cold outside when you see this amazing phenomenon. 

The morning of December 17, 2017, Ted and I loaded up the car for a day of ice climbing and hit the road well before daylight. As we drove around the green at the center of town, I noticed beams of light reaching toward the sky, rising from each of the streetlights. After pointing this out, we stared out the car windows in awe at this peculiar sight. They were EVERYWHERE, and SO BRIGHT! Ted snapped this low quality photo with his phone as we approached the interstate, and that was it. They were gone. We hoped to see them as we drove over the bridge in West Lebanon, since it overlooked more lights, but sadly, they seemed to only be in one small isolated area further east. 

The first half of our drive to the mountains involved me asking questions and trying to understand what we just saw. They were light pillars, which form on REALLY cold, calm nights, when there's enough humidity for the creation of "diamond dust," or tiny ice crystals suspended in the air. It's pretty cool, since it's like having precipitation that forms near the ground on a clear night, rather than falling from clouds. The light pillars are seen when light refracts off the tiny ice crystals, creating a beautiful display. Needless to say, I was pretty intrigued and welcomed the cold air heading our way. 

Usually I'm not happy about waking up in the middle of the night if it's not to go hiking, but yesterday morning around 3am, I woke up to see the elusive pillars yet again. Ted mentioned the night before that conditions were optimal for them, having fresh snow on the ground, light wind, and nighttime temperatures below zero. That knowledge is what prompted me to look out the window in the first place. I probably scared the crap out of Ted when I screamed "BEAMS!" out of excitement, and then dragged him out of bed and into the -14 degree night with my camera. At first it looked like they faded away, but we drove around a bit, keeping an eye out for pillars and an open enough view in their direction. We ended up at the Howard Logan Field in Lebanon, NH, and trudged through the new foot of snow for a less obstructed view. Ted set up the tripod while I worked on camera settings with my numb hands, and we were blown away by what we captured. Often, photos don't do things justice, but this time, I feel like it was just as pretty in real life as the photos depict. The pillars were more transient than we expected them to be. They were really good for only a short period of time, and seemed to fade in and out, but mostly out after the first few minutes in the baseball field. But just like undercasts and auroras, it was alluring enough to keep me up again last night, hoping for their return. 

We're Engaged!

“Let’s go somewhere,” Ted said as I sat at the table on a dreary Thursday, playing a game on my phone as the sun set. He’s not usually spontaneous so I was intrigued, “Where do you want to go?” Rather than driving me (almost) into a tornado (again).. Ted’s picked up geomagnetic storm chasing lately, and this week’s solar flare had him pretty excited for the aurora. I lacked optimism and felt depressed as I checked the forecast and looked at my radar app. Noting that it was cloudy with a definite chance of rain, I wondered what he could see that I couldn’t. I humored him, as I have many times before, and packed up my camera and a jacket. We live in the northeast, so it’s probably cloudy more often than not, and seeing the aurora isn’t something that happens all that often. The few times we’ve seen it in the past, the lights were so faint it was hard to tell if we were seeing anything at all without checking a long exposure. There were countless nights of driving around the middle of nowhere looking for north-facing views only to come home empty-handed because the storm didn’t stay strong enough or the clouds didn’t cooperate. I couldn’t see how tonight would be any different with the thick clouds outside our window, but since this was potentially the biggest solar flare in a decade, Ted insisted we at least try. So I manned the weather-related applications and refreshed the visible satellite one last time for cloud cover before it was too dark, as Ted drove across state lines into Vermont, heading northwest toward the small window of clear sky. In a car with dimming lights, a dying battery, and a host of other issues deeming it less than reliable, we somehow ended up miles down a dirt road, with no cell service and no way to monitor the geomagnetic activity. The tall grass was wet and we kept hearing spooky sounds in the woods, as the recent rain moistened the leaves enough to drip constantly, creating an eerie atmosphere. At one point, we heard a loud noise near the car, and Ted jumped, pressing the lock button on his remote to flash the lights and beep the car, hoping to scare away whatever was over there. 

Somehow, though, he had done it. He found the only 20-minute window of clear sky in the region, with the nearly full moon hidden behind a cloud, while the storm was still strong enough to see. The pillars danced across the sky as a green glow sat at the horizon, and I took photo after photo as the light kept changing. After 9 years of crazy adventures like this, Ted (finally) proposed under the northern lights, and I said yes.

Creating Clouds

Living with an atmospheric scientist, there is a lot of nerding out about weather happening on a daily basis as each new model run comes out. Imagine the excitement when this arctic air mass moved through and dropped the temperature to -40 degrees F (not counting the windchill) on the summit of Mount Washington last night. Given the dangerously cold forecast this weekend, we opted to stay inside and enjoy a warm fire and a relaxing weekend of catching up on things. Of course, though, Ted was watching the weather observations all day, and at times worrying about the groups who ventured out to higher summits and exposed ridges above treeline. When we went to bed last night, the ASRC summit observation on Whiteface was -38 degrees F with 50mph wind gusts, amounting to a windchill of -85F! I can’t even imagine what that must feel like.

In Mayfield this morning, it was -16F (not counting windchill), which Ted deemed cold enough to try the “boiling water trick,” which we may have done 3 or so times for fun. This consists of boiling a pan of water, which brings it close to the evaporation point, and then tossing it into very cold, dry air where it instantly evaporates. The water vapor then undergoes rapid deposition to become the tiny ice crystals that make up the cloud you see rise into the air.  Check out the video!