Image: "Fire rainbow," or iridescent cloud
Marnie Levy Williams / WPTV
This "fire rainbow," or iridescent cloud, was captured in a photo taken on July 31 over South Florida.
OurAmazingPlanet
updated 8/1/2012 6:08:46 PM ET 2012-08-01T22:08:46

So-called "fire rainbows" are neither on fire nor are they rainbows, but they sure are stunning.

They are technically known as iridescent clouds, a relatively rare phenomenon caused by clouds of water droplets of nearly uniform size, according to a release by NASA. These clouds diffract, or bend, light in a similar manner, which separates out light into different wavelengths, or colors.

That makes them similar to rainbow-colored glories, which are also formed by diffraction, and also produce an oscillating pattern of colors ranging from blue to green to red to purple and back to blue again.

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Although iridescent clouds have rainbow-like colors, the way light is scattered to produce them is slightly different. Rainbows are formed by refraction and reflection. When light is refracted, it is bent by passing through mediums of different densities, such as water or a prism. Reflected light bounces off a surface at an angle equal to the angle it hit the surface at. Diffraction, though, involves light waves being scattered into a ring-like pattern.

As with other iridescent objects, like peacock feathers, the color changes depending upon one's position relative to the sun and the object.

Iridescence usually occurs in newly formed clouds. That appears to be the case here as well. According to the Weather Channel, these are pileus clouds caused by a fast-growing thunderstorm that shoved air into the upper atmosphere through a layer of moisture. This created a fog-like cloud that looks like a glowing dome atop the thunderstorm.

Iridescent clouds are not to be confused with circumhorizontal arcs, which form bands of color parallel to the horizon.

The phenomenon was captured in a photo taken on July 31 in the clouds over South Florida.

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Video: ‘Fire rainbow’ is neither fire nor rain

  1. Closed captioning of: ‘Fire rainbow’ is neither fire nor rain

    >>> a freak of nature in florida. we've put these pictures on our website tonight so you can just stare at them. they're called fire rainbows even though they are neither on fire nor really rainbows. they are iridescent cloud tops that give off color wave lengths in the sky and they are beautiful. something more ominous, early warning of the newest tropical storm ernesto is just starting out heading toward the region of barbados and martinique. we will keep an eye on it.

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