A halo of multicolored mist floats over an ominous storm. At first glance it looks like an angelic mural or even extraterrestrial activity. But this breathtaking photo is neither manipulated nor paranormal. It's an iridescent cloud, a phenomenon occurring right in our own atmosphere.
This photo was submitted to National Geographic by V. Harish, a university student and amateur photographer from Noida, India. It was captured in mid-July, shortly after a summer rainstorm, an ideal condition for rainbow clouds.
"I decided to take some shots of the after-shower scenery," said Harish. "As I was working on a shot of a dewdrop, my friend spotted an exuberant colored patch peeking above a cloud."
Iridescent clouds, known as "fire rainbows" or "rainbow clouds," occur when sunlight diffracts off water droplets in the atmosphere. And the recipe for these heavenly sights is actually pretty simple.
Like common cloud-to-ground rainbows, iridescent clouds usually accompany thunderstorms. According to atmospheric phenomena expert Les Cowley, they often appear in the late afternoon, on very hot and humid days. This stems from the fact that most rainbow clouds form on top of cumulus clouds—the fluffy cotton-ball-shaped clouds we often see in children's drawings.
"What happens is that the cumulus cloud, boiling upwards, pushes the air layers above it higher and higher," Cowley explained. "As the air gets pushed upwards, it expands and cools. And sometimes moisture in that air suddenly condenses into tiny droplets to form a cap cloud."
This "cap"—which scientists call a "pileus"—is the source of the brilliant spectacle.
"The droplets in the cap cloud scatter sunlight to form the gorgeous colors," Cowley said.
Though the ingredients for rainbow clouds seem simple, they're not spotted often, and are even less frequently photographed.
"For a moment we thought it was a portal opening for an alien species to come to Earth," said Harish, who had never seen a rainbow cloud before. "But the beauty of it really moved me, so I just took as many shots of it as I could."
A good call, according to Cowley, who says the rainbow clouds aren't a common occurrence.
"Not all pileus caps show iridescence," he said. "I usually get images of them from Florida, Southeast Asia, equatorial Africa."
"I felt very lucky to have seen this in India. It's a very rare sight," Harish said. "Me and the guy who accompanied still joke that it's an alien invasion, and share a laugh about it!"
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