What Are The Mysterious Lights Over Downtown Seattle At Christmas?

December 23rd, 2013

You probably noticed that I put my Christmas header photo up on the blog recently. This header image has an interesting historical story that goes with it of how PFRE blog readers noticed and solved the mystery of what the pattern of 5 lights (one red and 4 green) are in the top center above the two tallest high rise buildings in downtown Seattle. I did a post on this in 2007, 2009 and 2010. Long time readers please forgive me for repeating this post but I just love this story, I’m sure there are hundreds of readers that haven’t heard the story yet!

I shot the Christmas blog header photo near the middle of Lake Union in Dec of 2006 aboard the Shubumi, a motor yacht, co-owned by a good friend and agent our John L Scott, Issaquah office where my wife and I worked out of for over 20 years. Every year Fred takes all the agents in the office on a cruise one evening in Dec to follow the Christmas ship to different locations  on Lake Washington singing Christmas carols. A big flotilla of boats follows the Christmas ship around and is a big boating tradition in Seattle. Shooting on a rocking boat in the dark was a challenge. This shot is one of about 20 frames it took me to get this single least fuzzy shot. I shot it hand-held standing as close to the center of the boat as I could get at as fast a shutter speed as I could manage to minimize port to starboard and fore and aft motion.

In 2007 when I first used this header, Seattle architectural photographer Aaron Leitz pointed out that he had a similar shot that he’d taken during the 2005 Christmas season from Gasworks park (in a park about 1/2 mile North of where I took my photo) on a tripod with a telephoto lens. The exact same series of lights with the same spacing and color appear in his shots. The enlargement on the top the right shows the lights above the Columbia Tower that I took during Christmas 2006, and the one on the lower right is Aaron’s shot from 2005.

At first my son convinced me that the lights were wing lights on slow moving aircraft in the landing pattern for SeaTac.  This seemed to make sense but after some research I realized that wing lights would not be both red and green. They would be either always red or always green depending on which direction the aircraft was going. The fact that Aaron’s  shot and mine showed the lights with exactly the spacing even though the shutter speeds were so different was a huge puzzle.

Aaron suggested that since neither of us covered up our viewfinder when we took these shots perhaps the lights were reflections coming in the viewfinder. We discussed several theories on why the same light pattern was present in the same Seattle skyline view taken under different circumstances during Christmas a year apart, but nothing really jumped out as a compelling explanation.

The post I did in 2009 got several comments that, to me, completely solves the mystery of what these lights are:

  • David Davis in 2009 pointed out that, “That is what is referred to as a “light echo.” A light echo is a phenomenon observed in astronomy. Analogous to an echo of sound, a light echo is produced when a sudden flash or burst of light is reflected off a source and arrives at the viewer some time after the initial flash. Due to their geometries, light echoes can produce the illusion of superluminal (greater than the speed of light) speeds. One can observe this phenom at night when viewing the flashing lights of radio towers, cell towers, etc. Especially occurring when the moisture in the atmosphere is at or near dew point, light echoes have been the source of many UFO sightings over the years.”
  • Mallory in 2009 gave an example of the same kind of pattern where lights appeared in the sky in one of his photos here” Notice that Mallorys’ photo in Kansas City looks very much like the lights in the shots that Aaron and I took.
  • Andrew Hurst in 2009 gave us another example of a light echo here in a time-lapse video.

So there you have it through the miracle of crowd-sourcing. These lights are undoubtedly light echos from beacon lights on one of the high-rise buildings in Seattle.

Oh well, I still like the theory that what the lights are is a Rudolph, and Santa phenomena since Aaron’s shot suggests that this is very slow moving air traffic. Eight reindeer, one on each side with green lights (the 4 green lights on their harnesses) with one red light in front (Rudolph)… don’t confuse me with science!

Merry Christmas and Happy New year to PFRE readers all over the world!

4 Responses to “What Are The Mysterious Lights Over Downtown Seattle At Christmas?”

  • This is just a reflection off the ground with lights that are pointed up, hence the same effect. I don’t remember the name of the ride at Disneyland but they do this with glass under the ride to make it appear that ghost are moving in the visible area in front of you. You see right thru but some is reflected. you are in the dark so you don’t see the glass at an angle right (probably a 45 degree in front of you reflecting the object underneath which is upside down illuminated figure) Time the light intensity and the angle properly and there you have it. The key here is to remember that these picture examples are in a wet or air saturated atmosphere area leaving a reflective layer up in the air…this reflection is intensified by the light probably a spotlight focused up so the intensity can be seen in the reflection that is bounced off, in this case the atmosphere, same as compared to Disney’s glass effect. I bet the ground lights could be found…note the one light the left seems to slightly different in color…this should give it away on the ground, (and the number of lights may help find it too). If this shot is cropped..You may just see it there on the ground in the original…if not it may be blocked by a building. Your clue to find it is based on the reflection being at a right angle or perpendicular to where the picture was taken on the same angle from where it was taken…assume the reflecting source is level to the ground and there you have it. It’s all how your brain determines what it sees…we see reflections everyday caused by glass but during the day the opacity is different.
    ps this is why we use polarizers sometimes…to lessen the reflective ability of the moisture in air that we can’t see.

  • Its santa heading south for deliveries.

  • Sorry, just read the whole story, besides it couldn’t happen this year because the FAA would consider Santa commercial and make it illegal, unless he was tethered…

    Merry Christmas.

  • I agree with Tom. Growing up in Puyallup, I’m familiar with the misty nights around the Puget Sound and reflections in the sky that sometimes appear.