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Weekend of Rare Oregon Coast Science: Novaya Zemlya Effect, Glowing Sand

Published 06/05/2016 at 6:51 AM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Novaya Zemlya effect at Arcadia Beach, Oregon coast

(Oregon Coast) – Beyond the throngs and the traffic jams full of people running from the 100-degree heat of inland Oregon, the coast saw some quiet but dramatic scientific oddities last night. The gorgeous sunset of Saturday evening was part of a very unusual weather effect, and later on the famed glowing sand showed up.

In fact, it seems likely the even more famous Green Flash at Sunset appeared as well. (Most sunset photos were taken at Aracadia Beach on Saturday night.)

If you were one of thousands and thousands of heat refugees on the beaches and you looked closely at Saturday's sunset, you may have noticed there was something really different about it. Indeed, really weird. It probably looked like it had a second head – or perhaps it was stretched out in a strange way. Or perhaps part of it was reflecting onto the clouds?

The latter description is closer to reality. It's an unusual ocean weather phenomenon called the Novaya Zemlya effect. Considered quite a rarity in some ways, it may actually be more common to the Oregon coast than many think. (Oregon Coast Beach Connection has photographed it before, as here in 2007).

This effect creates an illusion where it seems the sun is setting later than it really is. The upper part is often distorted in appearance, most of the time showing as a series of lighted bands of a rectangular shape. Yet you always see at least part of the real orb just below, descending below the horizon.

In the simplest terms, it's a kind of polar image mirage.

According to the Mount Wilson Observatory in Pasadena, California, the Novaya Zemlya effect is a thin slit of “sunlight traveling along the curvature of the Earth even after the Sun has set. The narrow slit of light travels in azimuth with the Sun below the horizon. This effect occurs primarily at higher latitudes where the angle of the setting Sun to the local horizon can be very shallow.”

This can happen with sunrises as well, giving the impression the sun is rising earlier than it should be.

In order for the Novaya Zemlya effect to occur, there has to be a large inversion layer in the weather offshore, interacting with what are called atmospheric thermoclines (transition layers between cooler and warmer air and / or ocean). The light of the sunset essentially refracts – or is bent – around those layers.

Many times it is accompanied by the famed Green Flash at Sunset – also the result of refraction. There, the last rays of the sun suddenly turn green for a few seconds. Or, in typical Novaya Zemlya fashion, a small green blob pops up above the sun. Pictured here is a series of green flash shots taken by Oregon Coast Beach Connection in the past.

Below: Saturday's sunset seemed to be preceded by another form of the green flash. Note the greenish band above the orb. It's not entirely certain this is a green flash, but at the very least you can see the Novaya Zemlya starting to happen.


The Novaya Zemlya phenomenon is named after the series of Russian islands known as the Novaya Zemlya, where it was first documented in the 1500s. Eerily, the phenomenon can also slightly resemble a nuclear blast mushroom cloud, and this is an island chain used by the Russians for nuclear testing.

Later at night, in Cannon Beach, Oregon Coast Beach Connection spotted the glowing sand phenomenon – also usually greenish. This is caused by tiny plankton called dinoflagellates which are bioluminescent, meaning they glow just as fireflies do.


Finally, after literally years of trying, staff were able to catch this in-camera. It is extremely faint on the Oregon coast, but it was slightly brighter than usual in the Tolovana area on Saturday night. Still, the shot is not a good one by any means. Most of the white specks you see are camera pixel noise, and two of the three larger dots are something similar. But the largest, most uniform dot is the tiny, faint flash of a glowing phytoplankton. You can see hints of the sand to the right (the photo is blown up quite a bit and contrast and brightness were fiddled with to an extreme degree to get the bioluminescence to show).

Now is likely a good time to look for the glowing sand at night. Find a dark beach with little or no ambient light nearby, head for the edges between the wet and dry and sand, and shuffle your feet backwards. It is spectacular. This could well stick around until the rain kicks in again. At bottom: one example of the entire scene at Arcadia Beach on Saturday night.

Check back here on Monday for video of the green flash and Novaya Zemlya as seen at Arcadia Beach. Oregon Coast Lodgings for this event - Where to eat - Map and Virtual Tour

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