As if 2020 couldn’t turn more upside-down, we now have nature playing tricks on us as well.
An image shared by amateur photographer Cessna Kutz shows the quick moment a “horizontal rainbow” appeared to almost cover the whole span of Lake Sammamish in Washington State.
“I’ve seen lots of rainbows over Lake Sammamish, but never a flat one,” Kutz told IFLScience in an interview.
The first, wider image shows the rainbow from her window around 2 pm local time and lasted for less than five minutes. A second zoomed-in photograph was taken using her Canon Rebel t5 camera at 300mm, ISO 100 /f11 1/250sec. None of the three images had a filter applied to them, though Kutz says that she did “just a tad bit of adjusting with the contrast.”
“It almost didn’t look real and honestly these photos are barely edited. To me, it was a little reminder to hold onto hope and love instead of fear and panic in these unknown times. Stay safe out there, friends,” Kutz wrote in a Facebook post
IFLScience spoke with Courtney Obergfell, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Seattle, who said that it is difficult to tell from the photo but believes the sideways rainbow may be what is called a circumhorizontal arc.
"It is an optical phenomenon that is essentially an ice halo formed by the refraction of the Sun in ice crystals in the atmosphere. In its full form, it can appear as a rainbow-esque band that's horizontal to the horizon, below the Sun," explained Obergfell. She adds that her department does not keep records of the phenomenon, but does receive photographs of them periodically.
Circumhorizontal arcs are also known as “fire rainbows." Despite its appearance, the phenomenon is neither a rainbow nor does it have anything to do with fire, points out the University of Santa Barbara Geography department. This phenomenon occurs only when the Sun is higher than 58 degrees above the horizon. A large, colored band that runs parallel to the horizon is formed as the Sun’s light passes through high-altitude cirrus clouds or haze containing plate-shaped ice. When perfectly aligned, the ice crystals act as a prism and refract light in a way that resembles a rainbow, reaching its maximum intensity when the Sun reaches an elevation of about 68 degrees.
Whether or not circumhorizontal arcs are rare depends on your location. The halo is often seen in the United States several times a year but is rarer in mid-latitude areas like northern Europe and nonexistent in countries north or south of latitude 55 degrees because the Sun is always lower than 58 degrees, according to the World Meteorological Organization.
There are, in fact, many different types of rainbow. Previous research has suggested there are at least 12 based on the number and combination of colors seen. They can be horizontal, full circle, appear as ghosts, and multiple can appear at the same time.
For Kutz, this moment of natural beauty serves as a reminder that the planet has time to slow down even in times of seeming chaos.
“Spreading hope and positivity will do more good than being fearful. Witnessing such a phenomenon during a time like this was a beautiful reminder of just that,” said Kutz. “Nature has a pretty incredible way of speaking to us if we choose to listen.”
And if you've ever wondered what it might be like to walk through a rainbow, check out this video here.