Fire Rainbows and Fire Tornadoes

June 6, 2016
Fire Rainbow


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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.

Reader Comments

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fire rainbows

I have seen several of these fire rainbows (I call them icebows) over my home in Michigan this summer. In the winter I have noticed that these fire rainbows form roughly 72hrs before a snow storm.

Hi - Seeing the headline, I

Bob Berman's picture

Hi -

Seeing the headline, I was all prepared to angrily rant against using the term "fire rainbow," since this newly coined, misleading label is for a well known phenomenon that does not resemble a rainbow in either appearance, cause, or position. Then I read the text and saw that the writer correctly identifies it as part of the treasured circumhorizontal arc -- a stunningly gorgeous phenomenon rarely seen from the northern half of the US. So, I've done a "180" and am glad that our knowledgeable writer is helping to popularize this amazing apparition. Despite "fire rainbow" being a recently created term frowned upon by most meteorologists, perhaps (since language does change, after all) it will not only "stick" but help promote awareness of the sky.

April's moon, the pink moon,

April's moon, the pink moon, is indeed pink when it rises. Go outside and look next April.


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