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Old timers ponder the meaning of sun dogs

October 07, 2011 at 08:15 AM

The State Journal-Register

Like many good things, brilliant fall colors don’t last long enough. The all-natural array of red, yellow and orange leaves come and go in a hurry. One day with a stiff northwest wind is all it takes to change the trees from bright to bare. Then they are bare for a long time. When that happens, Jack Frost has already been here, and Old Man Winter is peeking around the corner.

With summer fresh in our mind and a harvest moon ahead of us, it’s hard to get too excited about cold weather.

One splash of color outlasts the leaves and goes clear through the winter. When there’s a little nip in the air, we begin seeing sundogs in the western sky, late in the afternoon. Look for them on sunny afternoons about an hour before the sunset. They are bright spots on either side of the sun when the sun is low on the horizon. They appear when ice crystals form in the upper atmosphere. The ice crystals bend the sunlight and cause a reflected image of the sun to appear on one, or both sides of the sun. The scientific name for sundogs is solar parhelia. Some people call them “mock suns.” They are most likely to appear when “mare’s tails,” thin cirrus clouds, are between us, and the sun.  . 

Scientists say the sun has to be about 22 degrees above the horizon before sundogs are visible.

They fade in as the sun reaches the optimum angle. In full brilliance they can last 15 minutes to half an hour. They disappear almost instantly when the sun dips below the critical angle. Larger sundogs have a bright spot in the middle and colors that change to yellows and reds near the edges. Some of them show the full spectrum of the rainbow. Sundogs can be faint, or almost as bright at the sun itself. 

While they are not as common, sundogs occasionally appear in the eastern sky about half an hour after sunrise.

The Ancient Greeks believed that seeing sundogs in the morning meant a storm was on the way. That was often true then and remains true today. It’s something to keep in mind when you’re planning to climb into your deer stand late in the day.

The old farmers I knew grew up with were practiced and astute weather watchers. They watched the sky from dawn until dusk - every day. They said sundogs in the afternoon signaled fair weather the following day.

As it got past Christmas and into January and the temperature started dropping in the late afternoon, the old-timers would squint up at the sundogs and say, “Tonight will be clear as a bell and cold as hell.”

While that bit of wisdom may not compare to the cultural contributions of the ancient Greeks, it’s easier to understand than the ponderous prose of Plato. And it rhymes. 

Contact George Little at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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