‘Brocken Spectre’ Is a Rare Yet Beautiful Optical Phenomenon of a Radial Rainbow

Brocken Spectre in the Mountains With Sun Glory Rings

A Brocken spectre in mountain fog. (Photo: Stock Photos from VITALII_MAMCHUK/Shutterstock)

Strange, mysterious things can happen in the mountains. Among the more scientifically explainable phenomenon one may encounter at high altitudes is the Brocken spectre. These unnaturally large shadows show up on clouds, shifting fast and decorated with rainbow halos.

These shadowy figures are named for the Brocken, a mountain peak in the Harz Mountains of Germany. Due to its height, the peak often extends above low cloud or fog cover. The spectre appears on these clouds below the viewer when the sun is shining behind their back. It usually appears as a larger-than-life shadow of somewhat triangular shape. Rainbow rings radiate from the shadow.

So how do these rare optical illusions come to be? Scientifically, this effect is fairly easy to explain. The sun causes a shadow to fall upon (and through) the water droplets of the cloud or fog. The distance of the shadow makes it hard for the viewer to accurately judge the size and proportions of the shadow. The colorful solar glory often seen around the shadow is produced by light refracting within the water droplets. As clouds shift, the Brocken spectre can seem to flicker and move.

Brocken spectres are often seen at high altitudes in nature, and they have received much attention since first being described in the late 18th century. They have been mentioned by the likes of Charles Dickens, C.S. Lewis, and the psychiatrist Carl Jung. The figure often appears in literature as a haunting reflection of one's troubled self. In real life, some speculate the phenomenon may have contributed to supposed sightings of Bigfoot and yeti creatures. The Brocken spectre continues to fascinate today as an elusive optical phenomenon.

The Brocken spectre is an optical phenomenon which appears when the sun shines from behind someone and casts a shadow upon clouds below.

Brocken Spectre Optical illusion in the Mountains

A tourist takes a photo of a Brocken Spectre in the High Tatra Mountains, Slovakia. (Photo: Stock Photos from MAGMAC83/Shutterstock)

The Brocken specular and similar solar glories have long fascinated observers.

Pilot's Glory phenomenon

The Pilot's Glory phenomenon, a Brocken spectre as seen from a plane. (Photo: Reeftraveler via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

h/t: [Neatorama, EarthSky]

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Madeleine Muzdakis

Madeleine Muzdakis is a Contributing Writer at My Modern Met and a historian of early modern Britain & the Atlantic world. She holds a BA in History and Mathematics from Brown University and an MA in European & Russian Studies from Yale University. Madeleine has worked in archives and museums for years with a particular focus on photography and arts education. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys hiking, film photography, and studying law while cuddling with her cat Georgia.
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