Who says clouds screw up observing?

By Phil Plait | May 30, 2007 8:37 am

Sometimes, clouds make an observing session better.

Holy Haleakala! Click the image for a bigger version, and read about what’s going on with it on the SpaceWeather site.

Speaking of this, I sat through a tremendous lightning storm here in Boulder yesterday. I had almost forgotten what they’re like; in California where I lived lightning is very rare. I suspect it’s because clouds in that area don’t build up vast convection currents. The wind comes from over the ocean, and sweeps in over the land. I was less than 100 km from the coast, so the rain was always pretty mild. We’d get some downpours, but I think maybe only four or five thunderstorms in the six years I lived there. I grew up on the east coast, so I know thunderstorms! It’s nice to be back in a place where the weather gets dramatic again.

Oh — While driving in to the coffeehouse to write this entry, I’m almost positive I saw a bald eagle flying around about 10 km from my house. Wow.

Tip o’ the dew shield to Larry Klaes, and Spaceweather.com.


Comments (45)

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  1. Tim G

    After my family moved to Bangor, Maine in June of 1987, we observed virtually an entire summer without a thunderstorm. I thought that they must be rare in the region, but it turned out that that summer was unusual.

  2. Doug

    I don’t mean to be negative, but is the entire image “real”? The foreground and building look like they were generated with a 3D design application. Don’t get me wrong, it is very cool…just looks a little “off” somehow.

  3. Larry Rasczak

    GREAT Photo!

    A few weeks ago my son and I were flying south of a major thunderstorm, and got to see it at night. We were far enough south that we didn’t get any turbulance, but we did get to see some SPECTACULAR visual effects.

  4. Viggen

    Yesterday was impressive for storms, but colorado can do way better than that… those storms can be very different if you are actually up in the mountains at the time. My parents need to unplug every electrical item in the entire house if one of those storms comes through. Something nasty about mixing electric fields and pinnicles with regard to atmospheric ionization. One thing you’ll quickly learn about Boulder, though, is that it has its own weather microcosm.

    Welcome to the area:-)

  5. Daffy

    “I don’t mean to be negative, but is the entire image “real”? The foreground and building look like they were generated with a 3D design application. Don’t get me wrong, it is very cool…just looks a little “off” somehow.”

    It looks to me like the effect you are talking about is a product of a very long exposure time. I’d be delighted to have someone confirm or deny that, though.

  6. TAW

    Yeah, long exposure times (and other photography tricks) can make things look weird. That’s why you see the “star trails” too.

  7. Long exposures under low light condition quite often make things look unreal. To me it looks like the light on the observatory comes from the moon.

    All I can say is try it, that should be all the confirmation that’s needed.

  8. I’ve seen a bald eagle fly over my house twice this month. Very cool!

  9. The main reason the foreground looks off is that the lighting is coming from a different direction. This actually shouldn’t be surprising! The lightning storm is producing its own light, of course. The shot appears to be taken just after sunset, so the observatory is lit up by sky glow near the horizon. Therefore, the clouds are lit up by the lightning produced internally (which is way brighter than the sky glow), which the observatory is being lit by an external source off to the left of the frame.

    The brain is actually really sensitive to changes in lighting direction, so when you see it you go, “Hey, that’s funny.” But no, there’s no CG in there.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the colours were corrected/enhanced afterward, but I’m quite certain that the photo wasn’t doctored in any way.

  10. Crux Australis

    The trees and clouds must have been very still to remain so clear for such a long exposure.

  11. One bird you will see a lot of in Boulder is the Turkey Vulture. There is a large venue of them up on Flagstaff. Many a morning they become a kettle of vultures as they circle around the power plant on the CU campus riding the thermals.

  12. nancy

    I lived in Boulder for a while and loved the changes in the weather. That is, until a major lightning storm one day… I was at the kitchen window looking out when a bolt struck the ground outside- knocked me clear across the room. I was pretty hesitant about looking outside during a storm after that.
    Enjoy your new home!

  13. Matthew

    Bald Eagles in the Midwest are becoming quite a bit more common. In Alaska, of course, they have been considered pests by many for years. When I was there on a cruise, we passed a fish-processing plant. Whereas in, say, San Francisco, you would expect dozens of seagulls to be whirling and diving around the water surrounding the plant, here there were dozens of Bald Eagles swooping, diving, and fighting for fish bits.

  14. Wasn’t that storm yesterday amazing. We have enough hail down here in Denver to put a light coating of icy danger down on the streets.

    And that picture is amazing! Thanks for sharing it.

  15. Brant D

    Being a storm chaser in Fort Collins, it’s about time for the good stuff to migrate over here. I had to sit out the May 4th event in western Kansas. Finals week strikes again…

  16. Mark Martin

    Storm + observatory reminds me of one night a few years ago. I was at Lowell for a week, and one evening I tagged along with an astronomer to the Perkins telescope on Anderson Mesa. She imaged open star clusters as I looked on and made conversation. Eventually everything was running smoothly enough that we just watched local television and got very bored.

    So to stave off sleep I went down to the kitchen to make a couple of sandwiches. I was gone all of about five minutes. Upon returning to the control room she started exclaiming, “Help me, quick! Storm moving in!! Got to get the ‘scope down and close the dome!” So we hustled and got everything closed and powered down. In a period of less than 20 minutes the weather over the mesa went from perfectly clear to a menacing anvil-cell with hearty ZOTs of lightning. Rather fickle, I think.

  17. Rob

    We get to see quite a few thunderstorms here in Sydney. Even had a direct hit by lightning fry most of our household electrical goods over a decade ago!

    As for observing with storms I was in Western Australia in March touring through some outback schools for an astronomy education project we have. The last viewing night saw us in Geraldton back on the coast. We set up the telescopes and started the night for the students, teachers and parents as a storm moved in. There was no rain but impressive clouds. Lots of lightning in the distance. Observing was an interesting challenge – had to quickly locate and move telescopes to objects not obscured by clouds then move on as the gaps moved. All this to a background of an impressive light show coming in off the Indian Ocean. Unfortunately I was so busy on the telescope I didn’t have time to set my camera up.

  18. Wow. That photo really is…


    **ducks and runs**

  19. Rob

    If I made a pun like that I’d be ready to bolt away 😉

  20. Other people probably had that pun in mind but decided not to steal BA’s thunder.

  21. Hey BA,
    What coffee shop do you usually hang out at?

  22. Ian

    So obviously fake that image :)

  23. I see now

    Fox TV presents “Did BA really go to Boulder” 😉

  24. I saw a bald eagle about three years ago in south Alabama where I used to live, about 20 miles north of the Florida border, and two more last year on a kayaking trip down the Coosa River, north of Wetumpka, AL They are absolutely awe inspiring. The first one I saw was particularly striking. I was driving home, through the country, and it was sitting on a fence post about 20 yards off the road. It had never occurred to me how huge they were until then.

  25. icemith

    Re that photo: How could anybody just assert that it was fake, just like that? I would like to know why a couple of posters thought so. And yes others offered reasons why it was “different”, to which I concur.

    I’d say the exposure would have been close to 5 minutes, going by the star trails. And the light is coming from different directions. Even the reflections in the shiny bits indicates that.

    But wait…. what is that *in* that thunderhead? Is it a face? It looks familiar…. hmmm.. does the word pareidolia come to mind?


  26. Kelvin

    Those jokes are absolutely – shocking!

    An electrifying experience.

    Though some of you may get a charge out of it, others may
    find themselves feeling either positive or negative about the
    whole thing.

    Name a famous TV star who feared lightning – ROD Serling!

    Lightning rod, get it?

  27. That’s just…stunning! :-)

  28. icemith

    How’s that for an educated guess? I was correct with the exposure. I have just opened the original newsletter as provided by the link above in Phil”s blog. Canon30D, 5 mins., and it needed that wide 25mm (Equivalent) view. Nice shot.

    Also, some other interesting things there on the SpaceWeather site.


  29. Irishman

    Yes, icemith, great estimate.

    I’ve seen a bald eagle from ten feet (~3 m) away. Big, scary looking bird. It happened to be in captivity, recuperating from being shot.

  30. Gary Ansorge

    Thunder storms in Georgia are equally impressive. When a lightening bolt struck a tree about 50 meters from where I was standing, the light and sound were simultaneous. Intense enough to startle even me. Fortunately I was under a roof at the time. Thunder storms here usually pour down intense rain for less than 30 minutes, then dribble to a stop.
    I remember driving thru an intense storm in southern Calif, back in Feb.,1987, on my way to my second Dead concert at Irvine Ampitheater. It was so intense we could barely see the hood of the car, yet there were no lightening strokes.
    I really enjoy lightening, as long as I’m indoors,,,

    GAry 7


    I did not think the photo was a fake, and I buy the long exposure explination. But why are most of the star trails left to right, but the ones in the upper left corner have trails top to bottom??? Could not be shooting stars, the trails are just as long as the other stars so they had the same apparent motion as the other stars, just in a different direction. I am open to a good explination.

  32. I buy the long exposure explination. But why are most of the star trails left to right, but the ones in the upper left corner have trails top to bottom???

    His camera was pointing north. The north pole of the celestial sphere is just above the top of the picture, just right of center, and the stars are rotating around that.

  33. Mark Martin

    “But wait…. what is that *in* that thunderhead? Is it a face?”

    It’s just Mufasa.

  34. icemith

    Oh, OK. Mark.


  35. jackd

    icemith, nice guess. I guessed the star “trails” as one degree and calculated a 4 minute exposure. With a straightedge and a protractor, you could figure the latitude of the location pretty closely, too.

  36. Douglas McDonald

    The thing that first caught my attention about the image…other than it is just really cool…were the apparent textures on the buildings and grass. I am in no way a graphic artist, so I can’t explain this well, but the buildings have that “too smooth” look I have often seen on computer generated images. There also appears to be something in the depth of field that does not seem right. Finally, after a little exploring, I found a daylight photo of the building. In the daylight photo, the building walls look to have a very different texture than the night image has, although the day image is 2 years old and changes could have been made to the building.

    All of these things added together just gave me the impression of an image that was part CG and part real. The fact that the author has experience with Terragen…at least according to his website…reinforced my original perception.

    As I said, however, the image is very nice. My only “complaint” is that there is not a 1680X1050 version I could use as a wallpaper. :)

  37. That’s a beautiful picture. It looks almost surreal.

  38. Off-topic, but…according to my Astronomy calendar tonight the full Moon will be beside Jupier all night. It won’t be as spectacular as the May 19 Moon-Venus pairing, but one thing it has in common with that beautiful conjunction is that MY FURSHLUGGINER SKY IS COMPLETELY CLOUDED OVER AGAIN! If you happen to have clear shies tonight, go out and see it for me. And don’t forget to mark your calendars for the June 18 daytime occultation of Venus by the very young Moon.

  39. Space Cadet

    Hey, I traveled to Utah for the first time last summer, and as soon as we got past the salt flats we were in the biggest lightning storm I’ve ever seen. Bolts coming straight down into the peaks on both sides of us every thirty seconds. Scared the poop out of this California boy!

  40. icemith

    Again, re the photo. I was reminded of a photo I took, (actually it was probably a GAF/Ansco color slide), taken with a then newish Minolta SRT101 SLR in about 1967, of close-ups of some roses growing in the backyard – by moonlight!

    I set up a tripod (naturally), and with only the bright moon, and bracketing the exposures, found about 15 minutes was pleasing. Aperture was probably wide open, which could have been f1.7, but I would have been then smart enough to stop it down a bit to get a sharper image.

    The resultant image on 50ASA stock was surreal and quite pleasing. I was proud of it and that it worked so well. I will just have to dig (and I do mean dig) that slide box out of storage. As others have mentioned or have alluded to, it does look as though the observertory/lightning photo was graphically enhanced, but as I noticed long ago, really it is all about the smooth creamy texture, no doubt caused by minute movements and light reflections, that stand out. Reciposity failure also figures in the final outcome, at least with filmstock, but I do not know if that is even a factor with digital systems.

    Now, tonight there is a full moon, and it will be pretty bright for a week, why not set up your camera and take advantage of the really cool moonlight. Paradoxically, it yields a “warm” rendition, quite different and unexpected. Long exposure times with the, shall we say, less expensive digital cameras may be problematic. A remote control or the older cable release will be an advantage, or follow the century old technique and use a lens cap.

    Sorry if this was a little off topic, but there was some connection to ethereal lighting, and I just couldn’t resist.


  41. Mark Hansen

    To my bronchitis-addled brain, it looks like a weird lightning-cloud creature malevolently approaching the observatory. “Puny humans, I will destroy your star watching instruments!”
    Would make an excellent B-grade movie, maybe?

    It’s still a beautiful picture.

  42. Laguna2

    This picture is a composite of three pictures stacked together.


  43. Brendan

    I had wondered about the photograh’s validity. Mostly from the clarity of the clouds. I suppose that could easily be the fact that they get almost no light, and the only time they’re lit is when the lightning goes off. The lack of tree movement is easily handled by it being a windless night. At any rate, it’s very pretty.

    @Mark Martin: As far as the weather, that’s Northern Arizona. The fickle climate is something some of us even take pride in. I personally just get baffled by it, despite 20 years of living here.

  44. Sprinky

    Beautiful picture!

    The weather in Boulder typically changes fast. This past week, it’s been chillier than it usually is at this time of year. And, as I’m sure you’ve noticed by now, we get plenty of thunderstorms.


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