Friday, August 31, 2018

The vanishing Milky Way

Midnight Sky over Mount Rainier, Washington

As we celebrate Labor Day in the United States, we also celebrate the unofficial end of summer in the Northern Hemisphere. But the weekend marks more than a transition from BBQs to cooking indoors. The night sky begins its own seasonal transformation. Over the next few weeks, the most visually stunning portion of the Milky Way — the galaxy we live in — will fade from view.

For much of human history, the Milky Way — described by the poetic philosopher Sebastian Verro as a "mist" of brightly-shining stars — has been a prime feature of the night sky. Now, a large percentage of people have likely never seen it. As cities have grown, the band of light has to compete with city lights and air pollution. Especially over the past few decades, the galaxy usually loses.

But while our eyes now struggle to see it, rapidly improving camera technology has made it easier than ever to photograph — providing you can still get away from city lights. And I’m part of a growing number of photographers who set out each summer to try to capture it.

The best time to photograph the Milky Way in the Northern Hemisphere is in July. While its light stretches all the way across the sky, the center of the galaxy is actually centered over our Southern Hemisphere. During the Northern Hemisphere summer, the Earth is tilted at an angle that allows us north of the equator to see it.

It’s the core of the galaxy that makes for especially dramatic images. Within the band of light, there’s a dark void as if someone took an eraser to the sky. It’s not that there aren’t stars there — there are. It’s just that a giant mass of galactic dust blocks our view of them.

When crafting images, I like to tie the Milky Way to our landscape. This year, I planned to use Mount Rainier, the tallest volcano in the Cascade Range, as the anchor of my picture. So, in the middle of a moonless night in mid-July, I set out to an area known as Sunrise in Mount Rainier National Park. I hoped to capture the galaxy appearing to erupt from the volcano’s peak.

I admit it’s hardly an original idea, but my schedule didn’t permit anything much more ambitious. I also really wanted at least one night with the Milky Way this year. Frankly, photography was just the excuse.

To my own amazement, I came away with an original image that night, although I didn’t get a pristine view of the galaxy. The summit of Mount Rainier is so prominent that it can make its own weather. It’s an obstacle that can force seemingly clear air into clouds.

And that’s what happened the night I arrived on the mountain’s northern side. The skies were clear for hundreds of miles around the summit. At the peak, however, were streaks of radiating clouds. Rather than be frustrated, I decided to embrace them.

If you look for it, you can still see the Milky Way’s dark core in this image, but I like how it’s intertwined with the cirrus clouds that radiate from the mountaintop. The combination takes the midnight scene from dramatic to epic.

I’ll have to wait until next summer to try for another clear view of the Milky Way, but there are plenty of night sky photography opportunities between now and then. The Zodiacal Light, a pillar of light that results from dust particles caught between the planets, is best on moonless mornings near the autumn solstice. And the longer nights mean better chances to capture the aurora borealis.

Fine-art prints of this image are available in several sizes.

(See Kevin Ebi's national parks photography in his book, Our Land, which commemorates the centennial of the National Park Service. Follow his photography on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram .)

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