Sunrises and sunsets are breathtaking experiences. They can be absolutely breathtaking in and of themselves, leaving their gazer speechless as a feeling of peace falls over them. When you add in the miracle that is a sun dog to this natural process, your entire being will be consumed with awe and you will be certain that you have just witnessed a glimpse of Heaven.
Unfortunately not everyone who appreciates nature is given the opportunity to witness a sun dog (or parhelion, it’s scientific name). It is deemed an atmospheric phenomenon, an event that occurs because of the interaction between light and matter. Examples of common atmospheric phenomenons are mirages and rainbows.
A sun dog is most commonly associated with the reflection or refraction of sunlight due to the small ice crystals which form either cirrus or cirrostatus clouds. Most ususally two sun dogs will appear simultaneously, one on either side of the sun.
The greatest chance that you will have to experience this awe inspiring sight will be when the sun is lowest to the ground (sunrise or sunset). It is at these times that the atmosphere is filled with the ice crystals. These ice crystals determine the color and shape of the sun dog, as well as their very existance.
The ice crystals are hexagonal prisms; some are flat while others are elongated. Those that are flat will produce a bright sun dog, provided they are evenly oriented and their hexagonal ends are evenly aligned. Elongated ice crystals are responsible for providing us with other phenomena like parahelic circles, halos (like those featured behind Jesus in various depictions), and many types of arcs.
While there are varying shapes of sun dogs to be enjoyed, there are also varying colors. There are white sun dogs, which are caused by the light of the sun being reflected off the atmospheric ice crystals. These are the most common sun dogs and they most closely resemble the sun or a comet. In fact, many comet sightings have been mistaken for a sun dog.
There are also multi-colored sun dogs which begin with a bright red color, fading into a pale bluish tail that stretches away from the sun. There is nothing quite like it.
Though our scientific age seems to be discovering something new everyday, sun dogs are not among them. The sighting of these atmospheric phenomena’s goes back as far as the Ancient Egyptians, when records of their early writings were discovered. In them they wrote of the two suns in the sky and of the sun setting in the east, moving backward.
From the Egyptians, sightings continued. From Aristotle to Cicero, many saw and wrote about their experiences. The clearest description came from a man named Jakob Hutter who wrote about it in his book “Brotherly Faithfullness: Epistles from a time of Persecution.” At the end of one passage he wrote, “…Even though the other two suns were not as bright as the one, they were clearly visible. I feel this was no small miracle.”
This “miracle” has also been prevalent in modern day fiction as well. Stephen King has written a novella entitled, “The Sun Dog.” It was used metaphorically by the band “Rush” in their 1989 hit song “Chain Lightning.” And for those of you who have not yet been blessed with a sighting of your own, a sun dog appears in the beginning of the Robert DeNiro film, “The Deer Hunter.”
Aside from all of the technical and scientific explanations, seeing a sun dog for the first time is a truly unique and magnificant experience. You won’t have the time to wonder what angle the ice crystal is at, you’ll only be grateful that you have been given your own personal piece of Heaven.