Brocken Spectre

The Brocken Spectre: A Mysterious Atmospheric Phenomenon

Have you ever witnessed a strange and captivating optical illusion while hiking in the mountains? If so, you might have encountered a Brocken spectre, a fascinating atmospheric phenomenon that leaves observers in awe. Named after the Brocken, the highest peak in the Harz Mountains of Germany, this rare spectacle occurs when a person's shadow is cast upon a cloud or fog bank below, creating a magnified and distorted image surrounded by a halo of colors. In this article, we will delve deeper into the science behind the Brocken spectre and explore the various factors that contribute to its formation.

Understanding the Science Behind the Brocken Spectre

The Brocken spectre is a result of several optical phenomena coming together in perfect harmony. When sunlight interacts with water droplets or ice crystals in the atmosphere, it undergoes various processes such as refraction, reflection, and diffraction. These processes play a crucial role in creating the mesmerizing effects observed during a Brocken spectre sighting.

The primary ingredients for a Brocken spectre to occur include a mountain or elevated position, a source of light (usually the sun), clouds or fog below, and water droplets or ice crystals within the cloud or fog. As the sunlight passes through these tiny particles, it is bent or scattered in different directions, leading to the formation of colorful rings or halos around the observer's shadow.

The Anatomy of a Brocken Spectre

A typical Brocken spectre consists of several distinct components that contribute to its ethereal appearance:

  1. The Observer's Shadow: The observer's silhouette is projected onto the cloud or fog bank below, appearing larger and distorted due to the bending of light rays.

  2. Glorious Glory: Surrounding the observer's shadow is a circular halo of colors known as a glory. The glory is caused by the diffraction of light as it interacts with the water droplets or ice crystals in the cloud.

  3. Colored Rings: Within the glory, concentric rings of colors can be observed. These rings, known as supernumerary rainbows, are a result of interference between light waves of different wavelengths.

  4. Brocken Spectre's Head: At the center of the glory, where the observer's head would be in the shadow, there is often a bright spot. This spot is caused by the forward scattering of light, which enhances the intensity of illumination at that particular point.

Factors Influencing the Formation of a Brocken Spectre

While the basic ingredients for a Brocken spectre are relatively straightforward, several factors can affect its visibility and intensity:

  • Weather Conditions: The presence of clouds or fog is essential for a Brocken spectre to occur. Overcast or misty conditions provide a greater chance of witnessing this phenomenon.

  • Sun's Position: The angle at which sunlight strikes the cloud or fog bank determines the size and shape of the Brocken spectre. Lower sun angles tend to elongate the shadow, while higher angles create a more compact and circular appearance.

  • Size and Shape of Water Droplets or Ice Crystals: The size and shape of the particles within the cloud or fog influence the diffraction and scattering of light, thereby affecting the overall appearance of the Brocken spectre.

  • Altitude and Viewing Distance: Being at a higher altitude increases the likelihood of observing a Brocken spectre, as it provides an elevated position from which the observer's shadow can be cast upon the cloud or fog bank below. The distance between the observer and the cloud also plays a role in determining the size and clarity of the phenomenon.

Other Similar Atmospheric Optics Phenomena

The Brocken spectre is just one example of the many intriguing atmospheric optics phenomena that can be witnessed under the right conditions. Some other notable phenomena include:

  • Rainbows: A classic and well-known optical phenomenon, rainbows occur when sunlight is refracted, reflected, and dispersed by water droplets in the air, creating a colorful arc in the sky.

  • Halos: Halos are circular or arc-shaped formations of light caused by the refraction and reflection of sunlight or moonlight through ice crystals in the atmosphere.

  • Sun Dogs: Also known as parhelia, sun dogs are bright spots that appear on either side of the sun, often accompanied by a halo. They are caused by the refraction of sunlight through ice crystals in the atmosphere.

  • Iridescence: Iridescence refers to the phenomenon of colors appearing to change or shimmer on the surface of clouds, bubbles, or other objects. It is caused by the interference and diffraction of light waves.

Capturing the Brocken Spectre

If you're fortunate enough to witness a Brocken spectre, capturing it in a photograph can be a rewarding experience. To increase your chances of capturing this elusive phenomenon, consider the following tips:

  • Choose the Right Location: Select a mountainous area with clouds or fog below. The higher the altitude, the better your chances of witnessing a Brocken spectre.

  • Time It Right: The best time to observe a Brocken spectre is when the sun is low on the horizon, such as during sunrise or sunset. This allows for longer shadows and enhances the appearance of the phenomenon.

  • Use a Telephoto Lens: A telephoto lens will help you capture a magnified image of the Brocken spectre, making it more visible in your photographs.

  • Experiment with Exposure Settings: Adjusting your camera's exposure settings can help bring out the colors and details of the glory surrounding the shadow.


The Brocken spectre is a captivating and enchanting atmospheric phenomenon that showcases the wonders of light and nature. With its distinct components and intricate formation process, it continues to intrigue and mesmerize observers worldwide. Whether you're an avid hiker or a photography enthusiast, keep your eyes peeled for this elusive spectacle on your next mountain adventure. Who knows, you might just be lucky enough to witness the magical Brocken spectre firsthand and capture its beauty for eternity.

A beautifully regular glory surrounds a Brocken spectre shadow. Imaged by Netherlands photographer Menno Boermans (Photography) in the Swiss Alps.

©2003 Menno Boermans, shown with permission.

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Reference Atmospheric Optics

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  • "Brocken Spectre". Atmospheric Optics. Accessed on December 10, 2023.

  • "Brocken Spectre". Atmospheric Optics, Accessed 10 December, 2023

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