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Ask Andrew: Small rainbow clouds in the sky

Terry Buske asks what these small rainbow colored clouds are all about.

Welcome to a brand new segment on Good Morning Quad Cities! Each Monday and Wednesday morning, I'll be answering your weather questions LIVE during a segment we like to call, "Ask Andrew". 

This week, we're tackling a question regarding a small rainbow in the sky that viewer Terry B. saw recently in Stockton, Illinois. Here's the rainbow in question: 

Credit: Terry Buske

Notice it doesn't look like your typical rainbow that would normally span a good chunk of the sky, and it's concentrated in a layer of clouds. So, what is this phenomenon? 

I've actually had a few pictures of this particular rainbow sent to me in the last several days when we had some very thin, scattered clouds in our skies. This is likely a small part of what we call a "sun dog". 

Credit: WQAD
A full-sized sundog appeared in our skies on a very cold winter morning.

When conditions are just right, sunlight can refract off of specially shaped ice crystals that are contained either in clouds or in the air itself. In this particular case, sunlight was refracting off of ice particles contained in the cloud, directly horizontal to the position of the sun. 

Typically with a sun dog, you'll observe two rainbow-like structures on both the left and right sides of the sun, like shown in the picture above. However, there are instances where you observe just one side as we see in Terry's photo. 

Credit: WQAD
Light refracts from special shaped ice crystals creating a rainbow appearance.

The ice crystals that create these beautiful rainbow displays have a special shape, usually plate-shaped in nature causing whatever light that hits it to become bent and spread out into the rainbow colors we see. 

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