Sure the flat, open Prairies can get a little boring after you spend hours driving across them, but their seemingly never-ending skies are ideal for skywatching, whether you’re searching for stars, planets, the Aurora Borealis, or even sun dogs.
Sun dogs are actually a slang term for parhelia, a natural phenomena created by light interacting with hexagonal ice crystals that are either found in high, cold cirrus clouds, or have drifted lower into the atmosphere due to cold temperatures. According to Live Science, the ice crystals act as prisms that bend the sun’s rays as they pass through them. When the crystals move through the air, they align vertically, refracting the light so that the sun dog appears horizontal.
The patches of light formed on either side of the sun often look like two extra suns sitting at the same elevation above the horizon, which is why they’re also sometimes known as “mock suns.” The name sun dogs remains a mystery, though it’s been speculated that the phenomena was given this name because the light follows the sun the way a dog follows its master.
Sun dogs can appear almost anywhere, and at any time of year, but Canadian winters provide ideal conditions for spotting one. They’re best seen when the sun is close to the horizon, and in extremely cold temperatures, says David Phillips, senior climatologist with Environment Canada. So when the mercury dipped to nearly minus 30 degrees Celsius in parts of the Prairies last week, a number of residents caught a glimpse of these phantom suns.
For those of us who weren’t lucky enough to see one this weekend, some gorgeous examples were shared on social media.
— Karl Hill (@SLCaptainK9) January 17, 2016
— Judy Bird (@judybird25) January 16, 2016
They’ve also recently been spotted in Iqaluit, and even Ottawa.
But our favourite shot might be this one taken in Waverly, Illinois earlier this month.
They’re an excellent example of why we all need to slow down and take in our surroundings sometimes, including what’s above us.
“I think if people looked out and up a little bit more, they’d find a lot of mysteries and spectacular artwork going on in the sky,” Phillips told Metro News.