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Science Behind Spilling Sunlight (PHOTOS)

Jess Baker | TWC
Published: February 21, 2013

Jacksonville, Fla.

Jacksonville, Fla.

iWitness contributor mnmcarta captured this shot on a beautiful morning on Florida's First Coast.

  • Jacksonville, Fla.
  • Lahaina, Hawaii
  • Weilburg, Germany
  • Cardiff-by-the-Sea, Calif.
  • Windmills at Weissenfels
  • Grand Canyon, Ariz.
  • Blue Ridge Mountains
  • Foss Mountain, NH
  • Key West, Fla.
  • February 24, 1944
  • Maumee, Oh.
  • Payson, Ariz.
  • Crystal Lake, Ill.
  • Independence, Missouri
  • Cresthill, Ill.
  • Sandy Springs, Ga.

Have you ever looked up at the sky to see sunlight spilling out from the clouds in a dozen different directions? Some people call it the "Fingers of God" or "Buddah's Rays" and even "Jacob's Ladder."

Although it definitely looks like a sign from the heavens, it's actually a phenomenon called crepuscular rays, which are created by an optical illusion.

"The rays appear to diverge - widen as they get closer to the photographer," The Weather Channel's severe weather expert Dr. Greg Forbes explains in a blog. "This is what makes railroad tracks appear to get wider near you than on the horizon, and for roads to narrow to a point off in the distance. The actual light rays are nearly parallel, like the railroad tracks or edges of the road."

Dr. Forbes says a phenomenon called 'scattering' also helps to throw the sun in all different directions.

(MORE: What Punched a Hole in These Clouds?)

"The air molecules, small water drops, dust, and other tiny airborne particles scatter a portion of the light rays off their straight path and toward you," Forbes says.

You're most likely to spot crepuscular rays at sunrise or near sunset, when the sun is closer to the horizon.

Photographers around the world have captured the phenomenon, and you can check out some of our favorite photos in the slideshow above.


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