This breathtaking photo from Mount Washington shows a gorgeous northern lights display

Ryan Knapp/Mount Washington Observatory

A Mount Washington weather observer who was making his hourly rounds this weekend was surprised to look up at the sky around midnight on Sunday and see a rare treat: A faint glow off to the north.

Ryan Knapp, who has worked at the Mount Washington Observatory for more than a dozen years, had a feeling he knew what that glow meant, and woke up a coworker who was fast asleep in the living quarters on the observatory.

She confirmed his inkling: Observers were seeing a display of northern lights, made even more remarkable by the fact that the aurora was bright enough to overpower a brightly glowing full moon.


“It’s a rarity to get a full moon with the addition of northern lights,” Knapp told the Globe on Monday, noting that he’s only ever seen such an occasion twice.

It was so rare, in fact, that Knapp then woke up all half-dozen of the workers who were sleeping in the observatory’s dorms nearby. Not that they were mad about being jostled awake: “Everyone who came out that evening was happy to have seen it,” he said.

The show, however, was short-lived. Knapp said that from start to finish, the view of the aurora borealis only lasted about two hours.

“We were foggy beforehand, and then we went back into fog shortly after,” he said, but noted that people who had clearer weather conditions could have technically been able to see it from sunset to sunrise. However, he added: “I’m not too sure how many people got that opportunity, since New England saw a lot of clouds that night.”

According to NASA, auroras are the effect of incoming energy and particles from the sun, which can speed out from the sun both in a steady stream called a solar wind or due to giant eruptions known as coronal mass ejections, or CMEs. The solar particles and magnetic fields then cause the release of particles already trapped near Earth, which in turn trigger reactions in the atmosphere in which photons of light are released.


Knapp said he has seen the northern lights about three dozen times — but that was over a 12-year span, and he noted that seeing them “is not a very common sight up here.”

He said that the light show is also different in reality than how most people imagine them.

“Most think that it looks like a dancing rainbow, but it’s actually a bit slower and duller,” he said. “The only reason I was able to pick it out is because I know what a normal night sky looks like. ”

Knapp doubts that people in the area will be able to see the lights this week. However, for those who want to try anyway, he recommends letting your eyes adjust to the nighttime light for about 20 minutes, and warned that the glow is so subtle sometimes that “it could be mistaken for light pollution.”

Knapp said he snapped a picture of the aurora using a DSLR camera. The photo was then uploaded to the Mount Washington Observatory’s Instagram page, where it had about 3,000 likes as of Monday evening.

“This one I captured with an ISO of 200 with an eight-second exposure,” he said. “I tried it with my cell — it did show up, but it was very grainy.”


He then used Lightroom software to brighten the picture a bit, but otherwise didn’t mess with any other settings. He also said the photo was uploaded to Instagram with no filter.