Glory from aircraft

The Glory Phenomenon: A Spectacular Atmospheric Optics Display

Have you ever looked out of an aircraft window and been captivated by a mesmerizing display of colors and rings? If so, you may have witnessed a fascinating atmospheric optics phenomenon known as the glory. In this article, we will delve into the intricacies of the glory, particularly when observed from an aircraft.

A glory is a set of concentric rings of colors that appear around the shadow of an object, such as an aircraft or a mountain, when sunlight interacts with water droplets in the atmosphere. While glories can be seen from the ground, they are often more pronounced and vibrant when viewed from an airplane at high altitudes. Astronomer Franz Kerschbaum had the opportunity to witness and capture this captivating sight during a flight between Vienna and Brussels.

One remarkable aspect of Kerschbaum's photograph is the presence of four distinct rings within the glory. These rings indicate that the cloud droplets responsible for creating the glory were nearly uniform in size. This uniformity is crucial for the formation of well-defined rings. The size of the droplets determines the colors observed, with smaller droplets producing shorter-wavelength colors like blue and violet, while larger droplets yield longer-wavelength colors such as red and orange.

The glory phenomenon occurs due to a combination of diffraction, refraction, and reflection of sunlight by the water droplets. As sunlight passes through the droplets, it bends or refracts, causing different wavelengths to separate and form a spectrum of colors. The refracted light then reflects off the back surface of the droplets and undergoes further refraction upon exiting, resulting in constructive interference that creates the concentric rings.

The unique perspective from an aircraft provides an ideal vantage point to witness the glory phenomenon. At higher altitudes, where clouds are often found, there is a greater chance of encountering the right conditions for the glory to form. Additionally, the aircraft's altitude allows for a more direct alignment between the sun, the observer, and the droplets, enhancing the visibility and intensity of the glory.

Glories are not limited to aircraft observations; they can also be seen from mountaintops or even from the deck of a ship. However, the conditions required for their formation are more readily met at higher altitudes. The glory's appearance is highly dependent on the size distribution of the water droplets, which can vary based on factors such as humidity and cloud composition.

In addition to glories, aircraft passengers may also have the opportunity to witness other atmospheric optics phenomena, such as iridescence or the elusive green flash. Iridescence occurs when sunlight interacts with small water droplets or ice crystals in thin clouds, producing vibrant colors that seem to shimmer and change as you move. The green flash, on the other hand, is a fleeting green spot that briefly appears on the horizon just after sunset or before sunrise, caused by atmospheric refraction.

Next time you find yourself gazing out of an airplane window, keep an eye out for the enchanting display of a glory. The combination of sunlight, water droplets, and your unique vantage point can create a truly awe-inspiring experience. So sit back, relax, and let nature's captivating show unfold before your eyes.

Astronomer Franz Kerschbaum (home page)saw this glory on a flight between Vienna and Brussels. We can see that he was seated just forward of the wing.

Four rings are visible signifying that the cloud droplets were almost monosized.

Image ©Franz Kerschbaum, shown with permission.

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Reference Atmospheric Optics

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  • "Glory from aircraft". Atmospheric Optics. Accessed on December 10, 2023.

  • "Glory from aircraft". Atmospheric Optics, Accessed 10 December, 2023

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