Rare fire rainbow spotted in California

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  • MailOnline Travel spotted a rare fire rainbow in the Channel Islands
  • The phenomenon is a cloud formation, referred to as a circumhorizontal arc
  • A couple in their seventies said they had never seen anything like it before

Sadie Whitelocks for MailOnline

Fire rainbows are considered the unicorns of meteorology.

But thankfully one floated in the air above Santa Cruz in California‘s Channel Islands recently just long enough to be photographed.

The phenomenon is actually a cloud formation, formally referred to as a circumhorizontal arc. 

Rare sighting: An incredible 'fire rainbow' floated in the air over Santa Cruz in the Channel Islands recently, thankfully lingering long enough to be photographed

Rare sighting: An incredible 'fire rainbow' floated in the air over Santa Cruz in the Channel Islands recently, thankfully lingering long enough to be photographed

Rare sighting: An incredible ‘fire rainbow’ floated in the air over Santa Cruz in the Channel Islands recently, thankfully lingering long enough to be photographed

Explanation: The phenomenon is actually a cloud formation, formally referred to as a circumhorizontal arc

Explanation: The phenomenon is actually a cloud formation, formally referred to as a circumhorizontal arc

Explanation: The phenomenon is actually a cloud formation, formally referred to as a circumhorizontal arc

At first I thought I was seeing things as a wash of colour emerged in the sky.

But as I alerted people around me, I realised they could also see the heavenly display dancing before them.

A couple in their seventies, who also witnessed the rare rainbow, said they had never seen anything like it before. 

Due to strong winds, the fire rainbow, spotted in April this year, continually shifted with its vividness changing as it went. 

Coming together: It takes a special set of weather conditions for such a breath-taking sight to occur - circumhorizontal arcs most commonly occur in cirrus clouds but only when they're aligned horizontally

Coming together: It takes a special set of weather conditions for such a breath-taking sight to occur - circumhorizontal arcs most commonly occur in cirrus clouds but only when they're aligned horizontally

Coming together: It takes a special set of weather conditions for such a breath-taking sight to occur – circumhorizontal arcs most commonly occur in cirrus clouds but only when they’re aligned horizontally

Location, location: Because such a specific angle is necessary for the colours to be visible, the phenomenon is most common at middle latitudes, which includes the southern United States

Location, location: Because such a specific angle is necessary for the colours to be visible, the phenomenon is most common at middle latitudes, which includes the southern United States

Location, location: Because such a specific angle is necessary for the colours to be visible, the phenomenon is most common at middle latitudes, which includes the southern United States

Unique area: The U.S. Channel Islands, which is where the fire rainbow was spotted, are located off the coast of southern California along the Santa Barbara Channel

Unique area: The U.S. Channel Islands, which is where the fire rainbow was spotted, are located off the coast of southern California along the Santa Barbara Channel

Unique area: The U.S. Channel Islands, which is where the fire rainbow was spotted, are located off the coast of southern California along the Santa Barbara Channel

FIRE RAINBOWS EXPLAINED 

The phenomenon was first dubbed a ‘fire rainbow’ back in 2006, when one was spotted by a Washington journalist. And meteorologist Justin Lock told 14 News that a strict set of conditions are required for such phenomena to appear.

They only occur in high-level cirrus clouds, which usually form at about 18,000ft. They appear thin and wispy and are made up of tiny ice crystals. 

‘To produce the rainbow colours the sun’s rays must enter the ice crystals at a precise angle to give the prism effect of the colour spectrum,’ Lock said, adding that the sun must be at an altitude of at least 58 degrees above the horizon. 

The same sort of thing occurs when we see colourful sunsets. 

In those instances, high-level cirrus clouds produce many colours due to the sun’s low angle, meaning that we see reds, oranges and purples.

It takes a special set of weather conditions for such a breath-taking sight to occur – circumhorizontal arcs most commonly occur in cirrus clouds but only when they’re aligned horizontally. 

Because such a specific angle is necessary for the colours to be visible, the phenomenon is most common at middle latitudes, which includes the southern United States.

‘You’re more likely to see this type of rainbow during the summer in North America,’ Dayna Vettese, a meteorologist at The Weather Network, explained.

‘But in places like Europe, the arcs are much rarer.’

The U.S. Channel Islands, which is where the fire rainbow was spotted, are located off the coast of southern California along the Santa Barbara Channel.

In total there are eight islands, which are only accessible by boat.

Five are protected by the national park and marine sanctuary services, with a number of species unique to the area.

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