Fire Rainbows and Fire Tornadoes

June 6, 2016
Fire Rainbow

South Carolina reported seeing a “fire rainbow” on August 16, 2015. Then two days later, a “fire tornado” swirled through the skies over Idaho. 

Nature never ceases to surprise (and delight) us! What are these rare phenomena? Interesting, these two events represent both hot and cold weather.

What is a Firenado?

Fire tornadoes occur when the updrafts from the heat carry flaming debris up a hundred feet or more. Higher winds catch the updraft and swirl it. Think of a dust devil—a really hot dust devil. They rarely develop enough speed to actually become a tornado but occasionally do grow to giant fire storms.

The fire tornado or firenado in Idaho was a wicked swirl of wind over the giant, burning Soda Fire. Fortunately this one swirled, posed for the camera, and died out.

A firenado. Source: USMC.

What is a Fire Rainbow?

By contrast, a fire rainbow is caused by ice! It looks like rainbow flames in the sky! However, it is actually sunlight reflected off of ice crystals, like a normal rainbow is sunlight reflecting off of raindrops.

Fire rainbows are actually caused by ice. Source: Dehk at Wikipedia.

Technically, a fire rainbow is the bottom of a Circumhorizontal arc or an ice halo. The cold icy upper atmosphere reflects sunlight or bright moonlight.Sometimes it just forms a ring or arc of bright light, although the light sometimes forms a straight line (a sun pillar) or bright spots (sun dogs). 

However, if the viewers’ angle is just right, the light is broken into a rainbow of colors. It can look like an upside down rainbow in the sky or, if smeared by icy clouds, multi-colored flames.

For a wonderful hour this month, rainbow lights danced in the skies over the Isle of Palms South Carolina—an island just outside of Charleston.

Ice hockey isn’t the only miracle on ice—an ice halo with sun dogs and a sun pillar. Source: Gabor Szilasi, Wikipedia.

So yes, it's summer and the skies are filled with hot air. But sometimes when you look up, you see wonders!

What do you think of these rare phenomena? Please share below.


About This Blog

Are you a weather watcher? Welcome to “Weather Whispers” by James Garriss and until recently, Evelyn Browning Garriss. With expertise and humor, this column covers everything weather—from weather forecasts to WHY extreme weather happens to ways that weather affects your life from farming to your grocery bill. Enjoy weather facts, folklore, and fun!

With heavy hearts, we share the news that historical climatologist and immensely entertaining Almanac contributor Evelyn Browning Garriss passed away in late June 2017. Evelyn shared her lifetime of weather knowledge with Almanac editors and readers, explaining weather phenomena in conversation and expounding on topics in articles for the print edition of The Old Farmer’s Almanac as well as in these articles. We were honored to know and work with her as her time allowed, which is to say when she was not giving lectures to, writing articles for, and consulting with scientists, academia, investors, and government agencies around the world. She will be greatly missed by the Almanac staff and readers.