Investment Portal of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation

Diamond dust tricks

What amazing light shows the Arctic has prepared for its guests

22 october 2022

Would you like to go to another planet? You don't need to go to Mars, just go to the Arctic. Only here a huge luminous column sometimes shines above the sun's disk, while in the sky three suns shine at once—or one, but surrounded by a sparkling rainbow. And it's only in the Arctic that you can become a magician yourself for a short while and turn ordinary water into a sparkling firework of ice crystals.

The high latitudes are known above all for their polar lights. It really is an incredibly impressive spectacle, but it is by no means the only one in the vast programme of the sky shows the Arctic has prepared for its guests. Due to the extremely low temperatures, the air in the polar region during the long polar winter is saturated with so-called 'diamond dust'—ice crystals. Like glass in a giant kaleidoscope, they refract the sun's rays, creating amazing optical effects.

When the sky is covered by a veil of light puffy clouds, a rare atmospheric optical phenomenon called a halo can be admired. A ring of light appears around the sun or moon, resembling a rainbow: red in the inner ring turns to orange and blue at the edges. If there are lots of ice crystals in the air, the shining circle is very clear. In exceptional cases, a halo can consist of a full spectrum of rainbow colours.

Sometimes you can even see more than one halo circle. And if you're really lucky, you'll be able to admire the striking patterns of the rings strung together. But a solitary halo is also a spectacle, especially when it sparkles in different colours.

Parhelia, or false suns, are an even more astonishing sight. On either side of the Earth's luminary, at the same height, appear its bright 'doubles'—two luminous spots resembling a solar disk. It feels like being on another planet with three suns shining in the sky.

Sometimes solar twins can also be seen in regions slightly south of the Arctic Circle—most often at sunset or sunrise when the sun has not yet risen high above the Earth. But in the Arctic, where in winter the sun almost always barely peeks over the horizon, the chances are much greater. Parhelias are so accustomed to here that they call them 'suns with ears' in their own way.

If a clear and frosty night falls on a full moon, it is possible to admire the false moons—the paraselenes. They are not as colourful as parhelias, but they make just as strong an impression.

When 'diamond dust' forms very close to the surface of the Earth, at sunrise or sunset the sun at high latitudes turns into a huge exclamation mark: a giant vertical luminous column appears above it, as if hovering in the air. At sunset, the sun turns yellow, orange or red and the column of light above it takes on the same hue. The phenomenon is so rare in regions other than the Arctic that it used to be mistaken for UFOs.

After admiring the Arctic light shows, you can arrange your own. All you need to do is fill a thermos with boiling water and go out into the bitter cold. If you splash water out of the thermos with a swipe, it will immediately turn into a sparkling firework of thousands of ice crystals. It looks so spectacular that it's hard to believe the photos of it were taken without Photoshop. But it is true, and every visitor to the Arctic can see this for themselves.

An important detail: the thermos must have boiling water in it. Paradoxically, ice crystals form more quickly from hot water than from cold one. Scientists still don't know what causes this effect, but that doesn't stop visitors to the Arctic from taking stunning photographs as a memento of their visit to these cold regions.

Read more How Tender is the Polar Night? Life in the Arctic can be extreme—and not just because of the freezing temperatures


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