Brocken Spectre

The Enigmatic Brocken Spectre: A Captivating Atmospheric Phenomenon

Have you ever found yourself standing on a high ridge, surrounded by mist, only to witness a ghostly figure emerge before your eyes? This ethereal apparition, known as the "Spectre of the Brocken," derives its name from the frequent sightings reported on the Brocken, the highest peak of Germany's Harz Mountains. While initially unnerving, this optical phenomenon has captivated observers for centuries.

The Brocken Spectre materializes when a mountaineer gazes downwards into the mist from a ridge or peak, with the low sun positioned behind them. As the climber's shadow extends forward through the mist, it creates the shadowy figure that is commonly referred to as the "spectre." What adds to the mystique of this spectacle are the shimmering rings and glow surrounding the spectre, known as a glory. The glory is centered directly opposite the sun at the antisolar point, where all shadows converge. It is similar to other atmospheric phenomena such as anti-crepuscular rays and cloud shadows.

One might wonder how such a seemingly gigantic spectre can be produced. The presence of the glory, coupled with the obscuring effect of the mist, often distorts familiar reference points that could otherwise be used to judge its size. This distortion can give the impression of an enormous apparition towering over the observer. However, in reality, the size of the spectre is not as grandiose as it may appear.

To fully appreciate the Brocken Spectre, it is important to understand its underlying mechanisms. When sunlight interacts with water droplets or tiny ice crystals suspended in the mist, various optical effects occur. The glory itself is formed by diffraction and interference of light waves as they pass through these suspended particles. The resulting rings of colors are a mesmerizing sight to behold.

Interestingly, the triangular shape that the spectre sometimes assumes is merely a perspective effect. As the climber moves or the observer's vantage point changes, the shape of the spectre can shift accordingly. This ever-changing form adds to the enigmatic nature of the phenomenon.

While the Brocken Spectre is commonly associated with the Brocken Mountain, it can occur in other mountainous regions as well. The key ingredients for its manifestation are a low sun angle, mist or fog, and a suitable vantage point from which to observe the spectacle. This ethereal display has been witnessed by mountaineers around the world, from the peaks of the Himalayas to the Scottish Highlands.

In conclusion, the Brocken Spectre is a captivating atmospheric phenomenon that continues to intrigue and mesmerize observers. Its ghostly figure, surrounded by shimmering rings and a glory, emerges when a mountaineer gazes downwards into mist with the low sun positioned behind them. As shadows converge towards the antisolar point, the spectre appears, often assuming an odd triangular shape due to perspective effects. This optical wonder serves as a reminder of the mesmerizing beauty and complexity of our atmosphere. So, the next time you find yourself in the mountains, keep an eye out for the enigmatic Brocken Spectre, for it may just reveal itself and leave you in awe of nature's marvels.

As the mountaineer reaches a high ridge, a ghostly figure towers out from the mist, its head sheathed in shimmering rings. This at one time unnerving apparition is the "Spectre of the Brocken", so named because of sightings on the Brocken, the highest peak of Germany's Harz Mountains.

Nik Szymanek (astrophotography site book )took this photograph high on La Palma in the Canary Islands.

©2002 Nik Szymanek, shown with permission

The Brocken Spectre appears when a low sun is behind a climber who is looking downwards into mist from a ridge or peak. The "spectre" is the shadowy figure - the glow and rings are of course a glory centered directly opposite the sun at the antisolar point. But how is the ghostly figure produced? It is no more than the shadow of the climber projected forward through the mist. All shadows converge towards the antisolar point where the glory also shines. The sometimes odd triangular shape is a perspective effect. The Brocken Spectre is a similar effect to anti-crepuscular rays and cloud shadows.

The spectre sometimes appears to be huge. This is probably caused by the presence of the glory and the mist obscuring more familiar reference points with which to judge its size.

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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

  • Brocken Spectre. Atmospheric Optics. Retrieved from