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What Are The Mysterious Lights Over Downtown Seattle Every Christmas?

Published: 23/12/2014
By: larry

shubumiLightsYou 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. Click the photo above to see a close up the lights above the Columbia Tower that I took during Christmas 2006.

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 and arithmetic, 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. Also, the lights are too close together for a slow moving aircraft given the camera shutter speeds. 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 in a time-lapse video (no longer on the net to show you).

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

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!

leitz-20051226_0062-modUpdate 12/24/2014: Aaron just reexamined his version of this shot from 2005 and points out the following (click on Aarons' photo to the right to view a large version:

Attached is one of the original images I took on that fateful evening in December 2005. The light patterns in the sky are a perfect mirror image of the city lights.
This was taken with my very first digital camera given to me for Christmas that year - Nikon D50 with a cheap 70-300 zoom lens (Tamron I think). There may have been a shitty UV filter on the lens but I can't remember.
This really suggests that the lights are reflections caused by a UV filter. I'm sure I had a cheap UV filter on my lens. Looks like Cary and Ken in the comments may be right... don't mess with cheap UV filters!


8 comments on “What Are The Mysterious Lights Over Downtown Seattle Every Christmas?”

  1. Is this a light echo, or is this a ghost caused by lights aimed toward the camera reflecting off the sensor?

  2. Was there a filter on the lens? If so, is it possibly a reflection on the front element of the lens partially reflecting on the back of the filter?

  3. @Cary, that's why I've ditched the UV filters on my lenses. Good ones are expensive and even then, there can be issues. I've had problems at night with the moon or other bright lights creating all sorts of strange reflections.

    I've never damaged the front element of any of my lenses (so far).

  4. @cary & Ken, I can't prove this (yet) but I think it is very unlikely that it has anything to do with filters on my lens (yes, I was using a 16-35mm lens that did have a UV filter). If you look at this example:

    second photo down which was supplied by reader "Mallory" in 2009, the lights in the photo is an echo from a beacon light on the tower and it looks almost identical to the lights in my photo.

    I'm going to test this out the next time I'm in Seattle on a cloudy evening (300+ days a year) and try research this more. I think that anyone in Seattle could go down to Gas Works Park on a cloudy evening and see this very same thing with their own eyes. I doubt that it's caused by the camera

  5. It looks to me like the lights in Mallory's picture are a reflection of the row of lights at the base of the wall. Near the center of that row are 3 brighter lights with a darker light on either side. This pattern is repeated in the clouds - 3 brighter lights to the left of the tower along with a fainter bounce from the illuminated lawn below them. Since the lights aren't directly reflecting in the sky (because of the wall between) them they are bouncing twice - once from the direction of the camera towards the subject and then back at the camera from the direction of the clouds.

    Here's a similar picture taken during the blackout in New York after Hurricane Sandy.

    I had no idea what the bright green lights were, but right above the street lamp is a ghost of the lights at the top of the Empire State Building so obviously, that's where they come from as well. The only thing between my lens and the Empire State was the filter, so I guess that's where they reflection back is from. I had originally thought that the first reflection (from the camera) was from the front of the lens, but now suspect it was from the sensor while the shutter was open.

  6. @Cary - Interesting. I'm even more motivated to go shoot some experimental shots in Gas Works Park in Seattle where this happens all the time, and verify what it is.

  7. @Larry, Try shooting with a couple of different lenses as well. A zoom and a prime at the same focal length. If it's some sort of internal reflection, it should be different with two different lenses.

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