Category: "Atmospheric optics"

It’s not a rainbow (it’s better)

August 12th, 2014

In summer, the sun reaches higher elevations, bringing the possibility of new atmospheric displays. I saw this one in mid-June.


The top, upward arc is the more familiar and common 22-degree halo. But pay attention to the one on the bottom. Its colors look like a rainbow, but it has nothing to do with water drops of any sort.


It is the circumhorizontal arc, and it is as rare as it is beautiful. The colors are, in fact, more pure than those of the rainbow, and its origin is far more remarkable. It is remarkable because of the surprising set of conditions that must hold for it to exist. First of all, the particular region of cloud (at a certain angle to our eye) must consist mostly of ice crystals. Second, the crystals there must be nearly perfect tabular prisms. And third, these crystals must be in sufficiently non-turbulent air and of such a size that they fall in a nearly exact horizontal position:

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Halo in the sky? Uh, I don't see no halo...

April 20th, 2014

After a few days of fine bright spring weather, the barometer falls and a south wind begins to blow. High clouds, fragile and feathery, rise out of the west, the sky gradually becomes milky white, made opalescent by veils of cirro-stratus. The sun seems to shine through ground glass, its outline no longer sharp, but merging into its surroundings. There is a peculiar, uncertain light over the landscape; I 'feel' that there must be a halo round the sun!
And as a rule, I am right.


The quote, from Minneart* describes a common ice-related atmospheric apparition. It appears in skies all over the world far more often than the rainbow, yet few notice it. As a graduate student, I read about halos and often looked for one, but didn't notice it myself until someone else pointed it out. As a post-doc in Boulder, I was out walking with Charles Knight, and I mentioned my lack of success. He glanced up near the sun, pointed, and said “why there's one right now”.

What I had missed in my readings had been the fact that most halos are rather indistinct and often incomplete circles. Indeed, now when I point out the most common one (the 22-degree halo) to someone nearby, they often don't see it. But occasionally, it is sharp enough (and colored) to the extent that anyone will see it if they bother to look up and glance toward the sun. And often it occurs with other ice-crystal apparitions that are even more obvious.

Last fall, while perched high on a rock face, belaying my partner up**, I saw such a vivid display.


The bright spot is called a “sun dog”, “mock sun”, or “parhelia”. They, one on either side of the sun, usually appear together with the 22 degree halo. Indeed, the sun dogs very nearly mark the spots where that halo intersects another arc called the parahelic circle. Their cause: horizontally oriented, tabular ice crystals.

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