Meet ‘Firebows,’ the Flat, Rainbow-Like Stacks That Appear in Sunny Skies

A circumhorizontal arc is an optical phenomenon that belongs to the family of ice halos formed by the refraction of sunlight or moonlight in plate-shaped ice crystals suspended in the atmosphere, typically in cirrus or cirrostratus clouds. In its full form, the arc has the appearance of a large, brightly spectrum-coloured band (red being the topmost colour) running parallel to the horizon, located far below the Sun or Moon. The distance between the arc and the Sun or Moon is twice as far as the common 22-degree halo. Often, when the halo-forming cloud is small or patchy, only fragments of the arc are seen. As with all halos, it can be caused by the Sun as well as (but much more rarely) the Moon.

Other currently accepted names for the circumhorizontal arc are circumhorizon arc or lower symmetric 46° plate arc. The misleading term “firebows” is sometimes used to describe this phenomenon, although it is neither a rainbow, nor related in any way to fire. The term, apparently coined in 2006, may originate in the occasional appearance of the arc as “flames” in the sky, when it occurs in fragmentary cirrus clouds.

The halo is formed by sunlight entering horizontally-oriented, flat, hexagonal ice crystals through a vertical side face and leaving through the near horizontal bottom face (plate thickness does not affect the formation of the halo). In principle, Parry oriented column crystals may also produce the arc, although this is rare. The 90° inclination between the ray entrance and exit faces produce the well-separated spectral colours. The arc has a considerable angular extent and thus, rarely is complete. When only fragments of a cirrus cloud are in the appropriate sky and sun position, they may appear to shine with spectral colours.

How often a circumhorizontal arc is seen, depends on the location and the latitude of the observer. In the United States it is a relatively common halo, seen several times each summer in any one place. In contrast, it is a rare phenomenon in northern Europe for several reasons. Apart from the presence of ice-containing clouds in the right position in the sky, the halo requires that the light source (Sun or Moon) be very high in the sky, at an elevation of 58° or greater. This means that the solar variety of the halo is impossible to see at locations north of 55°N or south of 55°S. A lunar circumhorizon arc might be visible at other latitudes, but is much rarer since it requires a nearly full Moon to produce enough light. At other latitudes the solar circumhorizontal arc is visible, for a greater or lesser time, around the summer solstice. Slots of visibility for different latitudes and locations may be looked up here. For example, in London the sun is only high enough for 140 hours between mid-May and late July, whereas Los Angeles has the sun higher than 58 degrees for 670 hours between late March and late September.

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