Viewers in western Wisconsin today observed a unique atmospheric phenomenon: a circumhorizontal arc! Casually called a ‘fire rainbow,’ it occurs in summer-time as the sun must be high in the sky, at an angle of 58 degrees or higher.

(credit: Scott Riemenschneider/New Richmond, WI)

(credit: Scott Riemenschneider/New Richmond, WI)

(credit: Ami Tobin Rau/Baldwin, WI)

(credit: Ami Tobin Rau/Baldwin, WI)

The circumhorizontal arc forms similarly to a halo in that sunlight is refracted or bent through hexagonal shaped ice crystals that comprise high-level cirrus clouds. This process splits the white light into individual colors, like a prism.

(credit: Scott Warner/New Richmond, Wis.)

(credit: Scott Warner/New Richmond, Wis.)

(credit: Debora Chilson/Hammond, WI)

(credit: Debora Chilson/Hammond, WI)

(credit: Monica Weber/Menomonie, WI)

(credit: Monica Weber/Menomonie, WI)

The sunlight enters the vertical side face of the hexagonal ice crystal and exits through the lower horizontal face.

Its cousin, the majestic circumzenithal arc, appears as an upside-down rainbow, and forms when sunlight enters the top horizontal face and exits a vertical side face. This arc occurs when the sun is fairly low in the sky.

Both the circumhorizontal and the circumzenithal arc display colors more pure than those of a traditional rainbow.

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