Mysterious Lights Photographed Over Seattle Every Year During the Christmas Season?

December 24th, 2009

A few days ago I changed the blog header to my Christmas header. In 2007 when I first used this header, Aaron Leitz pointed out that he had a similar shot that he’d taken during the 2005 Christmas season from Gasworks park on a tripod and 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.

My photo was taken aboard the Shubumi, a motor yacht, co-owned by a friend during a Christmas ship tour near Christmas 2006 on Lake Union looking South towards downtown 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. ISO 800, F2.8 @ 1/6 sec. I shot it hand-held standing as close to the center of the boat as I could get to minimize port to starboard and fore and aft motion.

I had always assumed that the pattern of lights (one red followed by 4 green lights) in the sky were a wing strobe from commercial air traffic in the traffic pattern for landing at Sea-Tac since when the weather at Sea-Tac is from the South the left turn to final approach is out over Elliot Bay which is just west of the downtown area. But Aaron challenged my assumptions about the series of lights being commercial air traffic. He argued correctly that since my shot was taken a 1/6 sec and his at 15 sec the spacing of the lights should be very different. Yet the lights were exactly the same. These are clearly not navigational strobes.

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’ve 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. While doing the post today and reviewing the photos it occurred to me that we may be looking at Rudolph and Santa phenomena since Aaron’s shot suggests that this is very slow moving air traffic. Eight reindeer, two on each side with green lights (the 4 green lights on their harnesses) with one red light in front (Rudolph)… Just a thought. Does anyone have any better theories?

For those of you in the Seattle area this week, go down to Gasworks Park and check this out. Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!

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7 Responses to “Mysterious Lights Photographed Over Seattle Every Year During the Christmas Season?”

  • I’ve had this happen on several occasions, and I could probably dig up an example or two. The lights are caused by comparatively bright pinpoint light sources reflecting back and forth between the lens and the shiny surface of the sensor. You never see this on film because the focal plane (film) isn’t as reflective as that slice of coated silicon in your DSLR. In this case, my guess is that it’s one of the clearance lights atop one of the buildings. I’m a little surprised you see and red at all. Generally I only see that strange green color. I’ll have to look at mine more closely.

  • Wow what a cool mystery!!!

    Thanks for sharing.

  • What a great Christmas story, Larry. You made me smile this morning.

    Thank you.


  • 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.

  • Too funny. My husband did a post in our blog several days prior to this with a shot he did with HDR where lights appeared in the sky here: . Someone suggested that perhaps it was a reflection of the lights beneath.

    It is still eerie…

  • @David & Mallory- Thanks for your insights and example of this phenomena in a completely different location. I’m willing to bet the series of lights in my example and Aaron’s is being created by an beacon light on the top of one of the high-rise buildings and causing the light echo.

    Very cool! wikipedia has a detail explanation of how light echos work. See:

  • Larry,

    looking at this time lapse video – look above the tallest building towards the top edge of the frame about one third the way through. Not sure if this is the same city as in your images? – this is page 14 of the blog.


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