The Jersey Shore has sent us a lot of mixed messages this weekend: First, plague of toxic jellyfish invaded the bay waters, bent on stinging your body into crampy oblivion, which must surely a bad omen of some kind. But then! On Sunday, a rare "fire rainbow" sprawled out across the sky, which seems to me a pretty unambiguous harbinger of good. I mean just look at it.
Beachgoers in Avalon, New Jersey witnessed the unusual weather event yesterday afternoon, a sort of truncated rainbow not arcing through the sky, but sitting suspended in midair like a multicolored cloud.
I’ve never seen a rainbow like this. What is it? pic.twitter.com/ND3jxhFnGs
— Packy McCormick (@packyM) May 26, 2019
So that's a fire rainbow. The last time I saw one was June 14, 2016. Always wondered, never asked. pic.twitter.com/ab9ftNe9d7
— D E S P I C A B L E (@iamdespicable1) May 27, 2019
— Deborah Stewart (@DebKStewart) May 26, 2019
[Editor's note from Jen Chung: #WeLoveYourJimin is a reference to Jimin, a member of the BTS, the worldwide K-pop phenomenon. He is associated with rainbows... I think.]
Very pleasing, but what does it mean? According to the University of California Santa Barbara, these prismatic sky shapes "aren't really rainbows, and ... have nothing to do with fires," so "fire rainbow" may be slightly misleading. These meteorological wonders are more accurately known as circumhorizontal arcs, phenomena that occur when the sun climbs 58 degrees above the horizon: From that lofty vantage, it shoots its rays through the cirrus clouds that occupy higher altitudes, the hexagonal plate ice crystals refracting light and producing the above rainbow effect.
"Ooooooh, it's a sun dog, I get it," I imagine you shrugging to yourself right this second. I hate to say it, but, wrong! NJ.com reports that sun dogs—or parhelia—bear some aesthetic similarities, in that they form when sunlight refracts through the same plate crystals in clouds, but from a different angle. This produces a "concentrated patch of sunlight," according to Sky and Telescope, which may or may not bear the same rainbow bands.
Anyway, fire rainbows reportedly occur most often in mid-summer, and with reasonable frequency in the United States: People living in more southerly climes, like Houston and Los Angeles, might see them a handful of times each year. So maybe "rare" is not quite the right word, but considering summer hasn't even started in earnest, it still strikes me as a noteworthy sighting. Also, you've seen the fire rainbow now, you know it's marvelous. So: Congrats to the Jersey Shore on its special cloud, we're all very proud.