Too cool, part 32… and maybe 33

I’ve been meaning to do this for a while, and finally sat down to tackle it. You have to admit, it definitely fits into the ‘Too cool’ category, and offers a great insight into the rising air masses that form thundercells.

animated gif of lightning storm behind Bodie Island lighthouseWe are revisiting the photos taken during my July trip to the Outer Banks with a sequence of 34 consecutive frames as an animation, creating a dynamic illustration of the storm cloud activity. And there are a couple of things that I want you to keep in mind. The clouds themselves were only lit by lightning, and for the most part could not be seen in person except in millisecond flashes – even the faint sky colors at the beginning of the animation, the last vestiges of twilight, were too dim to really define the clouds except in these long exposures. Also, the exposures were varied, within the 20-35 second range, so in most cases multiple lightning strikes were captured, the majority of them within the clouds. If you look very closely, you can see the motion of the stars, and even a cool effect: directly above the lighthouse, the stars seem to move almost directly downward, while over the storm they have more of a diagonal motion. This is a trait of the wide-angle (18mm) lens, which gives a hint of fisheye distortion; all of the stars are tracing portions of a circle, but the ones closest to the equator have the largest arc and thus seem to move almost straight. The same distortion makes the lighthouse lean into the frame a bit. I readily admit that I did not bother removing the digital sensor noise from the frames, those bright red and blue dots, because it would have taken hours to go through them all.

Now, a couple of pointers if you want to attempt this. First, try to pick your camera position right from the start and don’t change it, leaving it fixed firmly to a steady tripod. I took an initial dozen or so images and then re-aimed the camera slightly, making it necessary to shift those frames to line up with the others, a tedious process at best – you can see a little twitching where it wasn’t perfect. Second, making sure the camera is level helps a lot; mine wasn’t, and all of the images had to be tilted slightly to look like I knew what I was doing. It seems like a simple thing, but it isn’t – in the dark, there are no references to sight the frame edges with, and often it’s hard enough to even tell where in the frame the prominent elements (like a lighthouse) are falling. Having a small spirit level can help, as long as there is a nice even surface to use it on, but whatever method you use, at least try to have it so you don’t have to correct the alignment of every frame afterward.

The varying light on the lighthouse itself, and the fence and foreground, does not come from lightning bursts behind the camera, but from me firing off an external flash unit to give the lighthouse more definition than just a silhouette; it took a few tries to determine the angle that would work best. While the bright sparks down below the treeline, among the buildings, were from other visitors, mostly firing off their phone cameras and oblivious to the fact that their flashes were completely ineffectual at that range, as well as the light show they were missing by facing in entirely the wrong direction.

All of that stands alone quite well. But there’s an additional item of interest – maybe.

full-frame example showing curious aerial lightI meant to mention in that earlier post that something I’ve been wanting to capture is a little phenomenon usually called a red sprite, a dim discharge that occurs, on rare occasions, well above an active thundercell. The conditions have to be just right, and even then they’re wildly unpredictable. But while out alongside the lighthouse watching the electrical show, I got a glimpse of something that I thought might have actually been one; subsequent reviews of the frames above the clouds didn’t show anything at all, so I figured I’d just gotten a stray reflection from my glasses.

With a lead-in like that, you know something has to be coming – and the truth is, I can’t tell you exactly what. Because while putting together this gif (pronounced, “SKIP-ee,”) I found not one, but two curious and presently unexplained lights in the sky – just, not where I thought they should be to fit the bill. Both of them appear in the animation above, if you watch closely right near the lighthouse light itself. To the right here is a full-frame example of an original frame, to give an idea of how big the items appeared, and again, this was shot with a wide-angle lens, so things look even further away than they would to the naked eye. The point of interest is just above the light, to the left slightly – really quite small, especially at this display size. I wouldn’t leave it at that, however, so we’ll go in for a better look, this time at the full resolution of the original image.

unidentified light in sky near electrical storm
Now you can see two prominent stars that have actually moved a bit in the 31-second exposure, while much of the other white points are likely sensor noise, but the key item is the dim orange smudge. This is, as you can see, nowhere near the top of the storm cloud, and given the distance of the storm itself (my guess was at least 30 kilometers away, probably much more,) this would also have been many kilometers above the tops of the clouds as well. The skeptic in me frowns, not finding this likely. And as I said, I was firing off the external flash unit during most of these exposures, so it remains possible that those flash bursts illuminated something in the sky, such as one of the hordes of mosquitoes that were attacking me with vigor.

Except… a single flash burst lasts only a few milliseconds, short enough to freeze a mosquito in place, not produce an indistinct blur like this. And while the mosquito (or even a night-hunting bird or bat) would have been well out of focus since I was set for infinity, in order to appear this big in the wide-angle frame, it also would have had to have been close – so close that the powerful flash burst should have blown it out very very brightly. For comparison, I refer you to this post, where I captured either a bat or a moth, or both, with a sequence of strobing flashes. Same flash unit, but because of the strobe effect, each burst was about 1/16th the strength of the full-power bursts used in the images seen here; the sides of the lighthouse, being much further away, received far less of the light and so appear quite dim. Bear in mind that I mostly aimed the flash up to concentrate the light towards the more-distant top of the lighthouse, trying to keep the lighting even, but look at the brightness of the fence in the cases where I aimed a little lower, realizing that the fence was hundreds of times more distant than a mosquito would have to be to appear that big in the frame, and yet I still wasn’t aimed directly at it. Also note that, in the strobe images from that other post, the shapes of the critters can still be discerned despite not being remotely in focus, while here we only have a threadlike appearance.

Now the other one, not all that far away in the frame (almost a direct line beneath it, in fact) several minutes later on:

unidentified aerial light above thunderstorm
I could almost believe this one was a bird or something, simply because it had a little more shape, but it doesn’t seem to fit. To be far enough that it wouldn’t get overexposed by the flash, it would have to be quite big, and then it would be getting into a decent focus distance; it should be either much brighter, or much sharper. Stray reflections from the lens are highly unlikely, since nothing very bright was shining anywhere near my position save for that lighthouse light, and while that’s bright enough to burn away the window frames and railing, it produces no effects in any of the other frames from that night. I could easily have seen any planes that might have come into the frame (which I did not,) but even if I missed one, the navigation strobes would have produced a dotted line in the 24-second exposure – I have examples of this from the later storm further south that same night.

So, did I capture a pair of sprites, or some other curious electrical phenomena that evening? I honestly don’t know – all I can say is a few things that they probably aren’t. For now they’re simply UFOs, or perhaps the more accurate but less understood appellation UAP, for unknown aerial phenomenon. But my curiosity is piqued, at least…