Monday, January 27, 2014

Sun halo

What: Over the next week I'll be posting photos from an wonderful wander I took out at Rock Point with Crow's Path intern extraordinaire, Brooke and her friend, Alana. I took the above photo after we watched a bald eagle fly around the point. We caught a glimpse of the eagle about an hour later soaring north over Apple Tree Point (look here for more recent sightings of bald eagles in Burlington).

Ecological notes: Ice crystals in the atmosphere cause all sorts of atmospheric disturbance, resulting in beautiful optical effects (like irridescent swaths carved across high altitude cirrus clouds). According to Storm Dunlap's The Weather Identification Handbook (yup, his name is Storm), these sun halos are quite common, occuring on about 1 out of 3 days in Britain and western Europe. Like all rainbow optical illusions, the phenomenon is created by the refraction (scattering of light) traveling through a medium, in this case ice crystals.

sun halo again here on Lone Rock

Conditions that favor appearance of sun halos:
  • Thin veil of cirrostratus clouds (cirrostratus clouds are among the more common, but least noticed clouds. In part because they are very thin, and often nondescript, just giving the sky a general "milky" wash). 
  • Incoming warm front (often associated with previous bullet) - where was our warm weather??
  • Winter in continental regions (as opposed to polar regions) where tiny ice crystals drift through the air. 
Sun halos form as little ice, in the shape of hexagonal prisms like the ones below (click here for a chart of snow crystal classification and here for a chart relating crystal type to temperature/vapor supply), drift through the air. Under aerodynamic forces, they tend to fall like as leaves do, with their horizontal axis parallel to the ground, or rather, broader surfaces at the bottom, like the prism on the right. When light that passes through two faces joined at a 60/120o angle (as on the left), light is bent at a 22o angle off the straight line. Scattered light appears to us in the halo offset about a hand length's distance from the sun. When light passes through two faces joined at a 90o angle (as on the right) light is offset by 46o and forms a wide arc around the sun. Since the crystals tend to fall horizontally aligned, it is very rare to see a 46o halo. 

22o sun halos are not rare, yet they are rarely observed. The reason this common phenomenon goes unnoticed is that the conditions for creating this phenomenon are bright conditions where the clouds are mostly imperceptible, again, that milky white sky. This was particularly true last Thursday with the salt making the roads whiter and bright white snow reflecting all that sunlight making it hard to see much of anything (and indeed at times I regretted not bringing sunglasses).

I exagerrated the colors to bring out the optical illusion.

Where: Rock Point, Burlington, VT

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