Fisheries worker captures 'fire' rainbow near Quilcene

Photo of "fire rainbow" near Quilcene National Fish Hatchery taken June 1, 2011. (Photo courtesy: Michael Elam, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.)

Leave it to Mother Nature to turn a gray, rainy day into something special.

Michael Elam with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was out near the Quilcene National Fish Hatchery last June when the sky put on a show just for him.

"Happened to look out the window and saw it," Elam said.

What he saw was the sky afire with color.

"I looked around to see if anyone else was seeing it," he said, before realizing he was the only one there at the moment. So he snapped a photo.

He said the rainbow lasted about 30 minutes -- "it was there for quite a while," he said.

Elam's main office is in Lacey, but it wasn't until another coworker recently mentioned something about seeing a similar rainbow near Quilcene that Elam showed this photo. They posted it on their agency's Facebook and main web page where it started getting quite a bit of attention.

The phenomenon is called a "fire rainbow", or, more boringly, a "circumhorizon arc".

These fire rainbows are fairly rare sights in the mid-latitudes, because they can only occur when the sun is 58 degrees or higher above the horizon. For the Pacific Northwest, that pretty much relegates any sightings to around 6 weeks either side of the summer solstice.

On this date the photo was taken (June 1), the window of opportunity with the sun high enough to create the effect was only between 11:30 a.m. and 2:40 p.m. So the "stars" -- or in this case, the clouds and sun -- really had to align to make this effect.

The rainbow was likely caused by ice crystals in the thin, distant clouds being at just the correct angle to refract the sunlight into the colors of the prism. Note how the clouds in the foreground are not at the magic angle nor have the correct ice crystal makeup and aren't painted in color.

Amazing photo, Michael!