‘Fire Rainbows’ in the clouds. Feel free to share this amazing phenomenon. And, er, more clouds.

Posted: May 12, 2014 in Popular Culture et al
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

fire rainbows

One of my favourite pages on Facebook is “I fucking love science” despite it’s rather, ahem, rude name.

Wandering through it today I found these amazing ‘Fire Rainbows’.

The rainbow effect waaaaaay up in the sky is created when tiny ice crystals in the water vapour of clouds reflect the sunlight at the exact right angle. The sight is apparently very rare and has only ever been photographed a couple of times.

These images were snapped by Ken Rotberg at UC Santa Barbara Dept of Geography. Very cool.

Clouds are a source of endless fascination for me. These shots are gorgeous.

rough clouds

rough clouds 2

Taken by Ken Prior, these amazing clouds hang over the darkening landscape like the harbingers of a mighty cataclysm, but apparently usually break up without producing a storm, and the formations have yet to be officially recognised with a name. Experts at the Royal Meteorological Society are now attempting to make the effect official by naming it ‘Asperatus’ after the Latin word for ‘rough’.

Naming clouds

Clouds are classified according to their height and appearance. Did you know that the 10 basic categories were first agreed by the Cloud Committee of the International Meteorological Conference way back in 1896 and published as the International Cloud Atlas?

Their classifications were based on the pioneering work of Luke Howard (1772-1864), an English Quaker and pharmacist, who published his Essay on the Modification of Clouds in 1802. In it he gives Latin names to the four main cloud types: Cirrus, “curl”; Stratus, “layer”; Cumulus, “heap”; and Nimbus, “rain cloud”. The early theorist of evolution, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) had suggested an earlier system in French but it didn’t catch on – his names included “hazy clouds” (en forme de voile), “massed clouds” (attroupes), “broom-like clouds” (en balayeurs). Before Howard and Lamarck, clouds were simply named after their appearance: white, black, mare’s tail or mackerel.  In the Wellthisiswhatithink household we still call Cirrus clouds “Mare’s tails”, because that’s exactly what they look like. 

weird clouds

We have no idea what these clouds are called but the photo is entirely genuine. If anyone knows, please tell us, we’re hanging out to know.


Clouds look harmless but aren’t always 

In 1959 Lieutenant-Colonel William Rankin, a pilot in the US Air Force, became the only man to have survived a fall though a cumulonimbus, the anvil-shaped “thunder cloud” (as seen above) that can reach as high as 50,000 feet. Rankin was flying across the top of a cumulonimbus when his plane caught fire and he was forced to eject. He spent a good half an hour trapped inside the cloud being thrown about and pelted with hail. Miraculously he survived, albeit with frostbite, blood pouring from his eyes, nose, mouth and ears due to decompression and welts caused by the hail. Pilots do all they can to avoid cumulonimbus clouds. Hail is capable of puncturing the exterior skin of an aircraft, lightning can destroy the on-board electrics, supercooled water will coat a plane’s wings with ice, altering its aerodynamic profile and the air currents inside the cloud can flip even large planes over.


Night clouds

Everyone knows that Cirrus clouds are higher than cumulonimbus, but they are not the highest clouds. Seven times higher are Noctilucent (“night shining”) clouds, silvery blue streaks that form so high up in the atmosphere they reflect the sun’s light, even at night, especially at very northern or southern latitudes where the air is very clear and not drowning in light from streetlamps and buildings below.

Meteorologists refer to them as NLCs or “polar mesospheric clouds”. This is because they form right on the boundary of the mesosphere (between the stratosphere and space). The mesosphere is dry and cold (about -123°C), unlike the warm, moist troposphere below, where all the other clouds form. These Noctilucent clouds are composed of tiny ice crystals – a fiftieth of the width of a strand of human hair. Noctilucent clouds are on the increase – there are twice as many as there were 35 years ago and they’re moving south: a visible result of global warming.

In many countries in the world, clouds are seen as bad omens, because they presage storms and floods. In a very dry area, of course, clouds are great news if they bring rain. So in Iran, for example, clouds are good omens. To indicate someone is blessed they say dayem semakum ghaim which translates as “your sky is always filled with clouds”.


Have you got an amazing nature photograph, of clouds or anything else, you would like to submit to our blog? Please email them to steveyolland@yahoo.com. Very happy to publish them. If you don’t own the copyright, please warn us.

  1. RL says:

    Those lumpy clouds you asked about are ‘mammatus clouds’ aka breast clouds (for obvious reasons) lol the conditions they require are fairly unique – Google it. Once you know more about them , you’ll see more too. For those of us with our head in cloud, They do make cool pics!


  2. Behrooz says:

    It is wrong or inaccurate to say in Iran they say “dayem semakum ghaim”. This not a Persian (Farsi) phrase, nor it is a proverb used in general in Iran. There are several minorities who live in Iran that speak other languages than Persian, I am not aware of the existence of phrase in those, but even if they use the phrase, saying “they say in Iran” is in accurate as saying “the say somewhere in middle east”. I come from Iran and speak the language and do some translation work as side job, I can tell you this phrase is not a Persian phrase. I asked several people around and they were not aware of it either. I did a little search and it looks like several bloggers and websites is using this phrase and mention in accurate origins for it.


    • Stephen Yolland says:

      That’s interesting Behrooz. I might be repeating erroneous information from elsewhere. I note the correction. It’s a shame, though, as it would be a lovely proverb!


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