Yellowstone Winter, Part II: Snow and Sun Dogs

Sun Dogs and Halo Over Sepulcher MountainThe author of Skywatch West: The Complete Weather Guide, introduces the chapter on halos and sundogs with a quote from Shakespeare's Henry VI, "Dazzle mine eyes, or do I see three suns?" Today, I was rewarded for venturing outside in below zero temperatures with the dazzling sight of the three-sun phenomena, called parhelia (Greek for 'beside the sun') or more commonly sundogs.

During my stroll up Old Gardiner Road, I had an excellent view of one of the sundogs over Sepulcher Mountain; the red and bluish light banished the whiteness of cirrus clouds, opening a door into the sky. At one point, it appeared that I could step through that door from the top of Sepulcher into a wondrous universe--and I was tempted to try.

Sun dog in Tuolumne MeadowsIce crystals refracting the sunlight create sun dogs and halos. The two hexagonal crystal types most likely to create these optical phenomena are shaped like six-sided wafers and columnar pencils. Both have eight surfaces capable of refracting light. As depicted in the photo with this entry, sundogs and halos can accompany each other.

Sundogs appear in a diverse cross-section of history and literature, as a entry in Wikipedia demonstrates. Artistole's work mentions "two mock suns," and Cicero's On the Republic examines the parhelion. In The War of the Roses, the appearance of sundogs was viewed as an omen of victory for the Yorkists.

In modern times, sundogs appear in Nabakov's novel, Pale Fire, provides the title for a Stephen King novella and Jack London short story, and even warrant a mention in the rock group Rush's song "Chain Lightning" (band member Neil Peart is a weather fanatic).

Being a dog-lover, I wanted to know the origin of the name and oddly enough most of my weather books remained mute on the topic. But I dug up the answer in my Weatherwise magazine archives (yes, I am that much of a weather geek). In the November 2002 issue, author Stephen Wilk answers the question 'whose dogs are the sun dogs?' in the article "Every Dog Has Its Day." He provides a few explanations, one of them being that the Germanic sky god Odin possessed two hounds/wolves, Geri (Ravener) and Freki (Glutton).

For more information on sun dogs, you can read an excellent description on The Weather Doctor's site.