By G. JOHNSTONE STONEY.
When the sky is occupied by light cirro-cumulus cloud, an optical phenomenon of the most delicate beauty sometimes presents itself, in which the borders of the clouds and their lighter portions are suffused with soft shades of color like those of mother-of-pearl, among which lovely pinks and greens are the most conspicuous. Usually these colors are distributed in irregular patches, just as in mother-of-pearl; but occasionally they are seen to form round the denser patches of cloud a regular colored fringe, in which the several tints are arranged in stripes following the sinuosities of the outline of the cloud.
I cannot find in any of the books an explanation of this beautiful spectacle, all the more pleasing because it generally presents itself in delightful summer weather. It is not mentioned in the part of Moigno's great Repertoire d'Optique which treats of meteorological optics, nor in any other work which I have consulted. It seems desirable, therefore, to make an attempt to search out what appears to be its explanation.
At the elevation in our atmosphere at which these delicate clouds are formed the temperature is too low, even in midsummer, for water to exist in the liquid state; and accordingly, the attenuated vapor from which they were condensed passed at once into a solid form. They consist, in fact, of tiny crystals of ice, not of little drops of water. If the precipitation has been hasty, the crystals will, though all small, be of many sizes jumbled together, and in that case the beautiful optical phenomenon with which we are now dealing will not occur. But if the opposite conditions prevail (which they do on rare occasions), if the vapor had been evenly distributed, and if the precipitation took place slowly, then will the crystals in any one neighborhood be little ice crystals of nearly the same form and size, and from one neighborhood to another they will differ chiefly in number and size, owing to the process having gone on longer or taken place somewhat faster, or through a greater depth, in some neighborhoods than others. This will give rise to the patched appearance of the clouds which prevails when this phenomenon presents itself.
It also causes the tiny crystals, of which the cloud consists, to grow larger in some places than others.
Captain Scoresby, in his "Account of the Arctic Regions," gives the best description of snow crystals formed at low temperatures with which I am acquainted. From his observations it appears - (a) that when formed at temperatures several degrees below the freezing point, the crystals, whether simple or compound, are nearly all of symmetrical forms; (b) that thin tabular crystals are extremely numerous, consisting either of simple transverse slices of the fundamental hexagon or, more frequently, of aggregations of these attached edgewise and lying in one plane; and (c) that, according as atmospheric conditions vary, one form of crystal or another largely preponderates. A fuller account of these most significant observations is given in the appendix to this paper.
Let us then consider the crystals in any one neighborhood in the sky, where the conditions that prevail are such as to produce lamellar crystals of nearly the same thickness. The tabular plates are subsiding through the atmosphere - in fact, falling toward the earth. And although their descent is very slow, owing to their minute size, the resistance of the air will act upon them as it does upon a falling feather. It will cause them, if disturbed, to oscillate before they settle into that horizontal position which flat plates finally assume when falling through quiescent air. We shall presently consider what the conditions must be, in order that the crystals may be liable to be now and then disturbed from the horizontal position. If this occasionally happens, the crystals will keep fluttering, and at any one moment some of them will be turned so as to reflect a ray from the sun to the eye of the observer from the flat surface of the crystal which is next him. Now, if the conditions are such as to produce crystals which are plates with parallel faces, and as they are also transparent, part only of the sun's ray that reaches the front face of the crystal will be reflected from it; the rest will enter the crystal, and, falling on the parallel surface behind, a portion will be there reflected, and passing out through the front face, will also reach the eye of the observer.
These two portions of the ray - that reflected from the front face and that reflected from the back - are precisely in the condition in which they can interfere with one another, so as to produce the splendid colors with which we are familiar in soap bubbles. If the crystals are of diverse thicknesses, the colors from the individual crystals will be different, and the mixture of them all will produce merely white light; but if all are nearly of the same thickness, they will transmit the same color toward the observer, who will accordingly see this color in the part of the cloud occupied by these crystals. The color will, of course, not be undiluted; for other crystals will send forward white light, and this, blended with the colored light, will produce delicate shades in cases where the corresponding colors of a soap bubble would be vivid.
We have now only to explain how it happens that on very rare occasions the colors, instead of lying in irregular patches, form definite fringes round the borders of the cloudlets. The circumstances that give rise to this special form of the phenomenon appear to be the following: While the cloud is in the process of growth (that is, so long as the precipitation of vapor into the crystalline state continues to take place), so long will the crystals keep augmenting. If, then, a cloudlet is in the process of formation, not only by the springing up of fresh crystals around, but also by the continued growth of the crystals within it, then will that patch of cloud consist of crystals which are largest in its central part, and gradually smaller as their situation approaches the outside. Here, then, are conditions which will produce one color round the margin of the cloud, and that color mixed with others, and so giving rise to other tints, farther in. In this way there comes into existence that iris-like border which is now and then seen.
The occasional upsetting of the crystals, which is required to keep them fluttering, may be produced in any of three ways. The cloudlets may have been formed from the blending together of two layers of air saturated at different temperatures, and moving with different velocities or in different directions. Where these currents intermix, a certain amount of disturbance will prevail, which, if sufficiently slight, would not much interfere with the regularity of the crystals, and might yet be sufficient to occasion little draughts, which would blow them about when formed. Or, if the cold layer is above, and if it is in a sufficient degree colder, there need not be any previous relative motion of the two layers; the inevitable convection currents will suffice. Another, and probably the most frequent, cause for little breezes in the neighborhood of the cloudlets is that when the cloudlets are formed they immediately absorb the heat of the sun in a way that the previously clear air had not done.
If they absorb enough, they will rise like feeble balloons, and slight return currents will travel downward round their margins, throwing all crystals in that situation into disorder.
I do not include among the causes which may agitate the crystals another cause which must produce excessively slight currents of air, namely, that arising from the subsidence of the cloudlets owing to their weight. The crystals will fall faster wherein cloud masses than in the intervening portions where the cloud is thinner. But the subsidence itself is so slow that any relative motions to which differences in the rate of subsidence can give rise are probably too feeble to produce an appreciable effect. Of course, in general, more than one of the above causes will concur; and it is the resultant of the effects which they would have separately produced that will be felt by the crystals.
If the precipitation had taken place so very evenly over the sky that there were no cloudlets formed, but only one uniform veil of haze, then the currents which would flutter the crystals may be so entirely absent that the little plates of crystals can fixedly assume the horizontal position which is natural to them. In this event the cloud will exhibit no iridescence, but, instead of it, a vertical circle through the sun will present itself. This, on some rare occasions, is a feature of the phenomenon of parhelia.
It thus appears that the occasional iridescence of cirrus clouds is satisfactorily accounted for by the concurrence of conditions, each of which is known to have a real existence in nature.... - Phil. Mag., July 1887.