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See Inside January 2012

The Science of the Glory

One of the most beautiful phenomena in meteorology has a surprisingly subtle explanation. Its study also helps to predict the role that clouds will play in climate change



Steve Jurvetson

On a daytime flight pick a window seat that will allow you to locate the shadow of the airplane on the clouds; this requires figuring out the direction of travel relative to the position of the sun. If you are lucky, you may be rewarded with one of the most beautiful of all meteorological sights: a multicolored-light halo surrounding the shadow. Its iridescent rings are not those of a rainbow but of a different and more subtle effect called a glory. It is most striking when the clouds are closest because then it dominates the whole horizon.

If you are a mountain climber, you may also see a glory soon after sunrise, around the shadow your own head casts on nearby clouds. Here is how it was described in the first reported observation, published in 1748 and made a decade earlier by members of a French scientific expedition to the top of Pambamarca in what is now Ecuador: “A cloud that covered us dissolved itself and let through the rays of the rising sun.... Then each of us saw his shadow projected upon the cloud.... What seemed most remarkable to us was the appearance of a halo or glory around the head, consisting of three or four small concentric circles, very brightly colored.... The most surprising thing was that, of the six or seven people who were present, each of them saw the phenomenon only around the shadow of his own head, and saw nothing around other people’s heads.”

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