Snowdogs howling at the moon


KIMBALL, Neb. – The super blue blood moon eclipse of Jan. 31 was pretty cool. A little bit overhyped – in my opinion – but very cool nonetheless.
It was a super moon because the full moon occurred at – roughly – the moon’s closest point of approach to earth in her elliptical orbit. Therefore, the moon appeared to be bigger and brighter than usual in the night sky. It was a blue moon because that’s what the second full moon in any calendar month is called. It was a blood moon because it happened to coincide with a total lunar eclipse, which happens when the earth comes between the sun and moon. When this happens, the moon is only indirectly illuminated by sunlight reflected from our very own planet Earth, and it seems to dim and take on a reddish hue.
At Kimball, Jan. 31 was a cloudy, overcast day. The cloud cover was forecast to remain in place, but it did break up for a few hours, and the big, bright moon came out and illuminated the winter landscape quite nicely. The clouds rolled back in and snow began to fall before the lunar eclipse started, however, and while you could still see the moon it wasn’t much of a show. At least, not the kind of show promised by the moon’s press agents. But that’s okay, because nature provides much more than any marketer could ever promise.
At about 1:30 a.m. I was just getting back from the hospital where a family member was having a rough go. I stepped out of the pickup into a very pretty scene. It was cold out, and it was snowing, but there wasn’t a hint of breeze. The snow fell straight down and the big, soft flakes quickly covered the ground.
There’s something peaceful and beautiful in this kind of nighttime snowfall. I took out my phone and tried to capture the essence of the thing on video. As I filmed, a chorus of coyotes began to yip and howl. They were close – perhaps a hundred yards away and on the other side of a tree line. In the distance and all around, other groups of coyotes joined in.
For some reason the coyote song seemed to add the perfect accompaniment to a lovely, soft, nighttime snowfall. As I often do when faced with such natural beauty, I paused to give thanks. Not many folks have the opportunity I have.
Here’s a link to the video I took: https://youtu.be/gk_7hcyGvAo
The night of Feb. 12 provided yet more beauty, in the form of light pillars, which I always misidentify as snow dogs.
Snow dogs, sometimes spelled as one word, or ‘snowdogs,’ seems to be a regional term for an atmospheric reflective/refractive phenomenon associated with snow. More formally, and probably more correctly, it’s known as the sun dog phenomenon.
Scientifically, sun dogs are called parhelia. They occur when there are lots of ice crystals in the atmosphere and most often when the sun angle is low in the sky. They usually consist of a pair of bright spots on either side of the sun. The two bright spots are a halo effect caused by sunlight refracting from the countless ice crystals in the air. In some sense the sun dogs make it look as if there are three suns in the sky, with the outer pair notably less bright than the real sun in the center.
At any rate, sun dogs are far from uncommon around here during the winter. Moon dogs are a similar but less common phenomenon, one that happens at night and when a bright moon is low to the horizon. In the case of moon dogs, atmospheric ice crystals are in the mix, but the light is provided by the moon.
More common than moon dogs are light pillars. Like sun dogs and moon dogs, light pillars are a halo effect caused by light refracting from ice crystals in the atmosphere.
Light pillars are also called the crystal beam phenomenon. The light pillar looks like a thin column of light that extends vertically above and/or below the primary source of light. Light pillars can arise from the sun or moon, but also from man-made lights such as streetlights.
At some point in the distant past I got my terms confused and began calling nighttime light pillars snow dogs. The term is incorrect, but it’s the one that always pops into my mind when I see those vertical beams of light. My very favorite light pillars are those cast by the rotating beacon at Kimball’s Municipal Airport, KIBM.
Rather than a stationary pillar of light, the rotating beacon causes a light pillar which seems to strobe on and off, jetting upward from the horizon and out into space. You only see the light beam when the beacon light points directly at you as it rotates.
There’s just something amazing about being outside on a still winter’s evening and seeing that shaft of light shoot heavenward every few seconds. I can, and often do – when conditions are right – watch it for hours. And that’s what I did on the night of Feb. 12, 2018.

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