Tuesday night’s epic sky show stemmed from the perfect placement of storms, light precipitation and the setting sun.
While severe thunderstorms had formed to the south of Washington, the immediate D.C. area missed out on the predicted storminess. Storms primarily fired from southern Prince William County southward toward Richmond, merging into a line. That line grew to the northeast of Washington, a few cells popping closer to the Chesapeake Bay and over the western Delmarva Peninsula. Eventually, all those storms congealed, their upper-level anvil cloud fanning back over D.C.
After about 7:30 p.m., some weak rising motion on the back side of the storms, combined with moist air lingering at the lower levels, allowed some light rain to fall from the anvil. Some of it evaporated before hitting the ground, leaving behind “virga,” or wispy shreds of cloudiness. Meanwhile, a lack of low clouds on the western horizon allowed the setting sun to shine, the canvas of clouds overhead providing the perfect backdrop.
Because it was sunset, the sunlight had to shine through greater lengths of Earth’s atmosphere, filtering out all but the most spectacular amber and yellow light. Even once the sun had dipped below the horizon, the high clouds aloft remained bathed in delicate pastel hues thanks to the clouds’ altitude.
For a few minutes, a hint of light rain even overlapped with the serene scene beneath the ceiling of gold. Since small raindrops or sprinkles fall slower than large ones, it resembled gilded beads precipitating from overhead.
But the icing on the cake? A brilliant double rainbow that formed around 8:15 p.m. and lasted past sunset. It is also special because it is the highest and “biggest” rainbow you can ever see from flat ground. The lower the sun, the higher the rainbow. We saw half of the full 360 degree circle.
At the top of the rainbow, a few extra “supernumerary” bands of colors even sneaked in.
See a selection of photos of the beautiful sky from our social media feeds below.