Next month’s solar eclipse put me in mind of another gem the sun has in her celestial bag of tricks. An emerald, actually – a phenomenon called “the green flash.”
One afternoon, many moons ago, I was walking to my dorm when I spied another student just sitting on a bench and staring across the quad (remember, this was before cell phones and the web). A freshman and an introvert, I nevertheless was determined to practice this “talking to strangers” thing, so I sat down beside her and initiated a conversation. She told me, matter-of-factly, that sometimes when the sun sinks into the ocean, it flashes green. Huh. Clearly, I thought to myself, this girl was trying to get rid of me with absurd non sequitur factoids. Nonplussed, I politely left her to her green sun fantasy.
Perhaps a year or so later, I came across a reference in some periodical to the sun flashing green. My memory reconnected to that afternoon and the girl I totally failed to get on with. Perhaps, I thought, this trick of the light was a real thing after all. As I recall, the essay featured a brief description of the sun turning green as it sank into the sea, yet gave nothing in the way of an explanation – much like one’s musings might be interrupted by a shooting star, and marking it as noteworthy without feeling obligated to explain the phenomenon. Nowadays, of course, I would have found the nearest screen and performed the instant research we take for granted. Googling “green flash” earns you a list links of technical explanations on extreme refraction of sunlight, plus photos and even videos. But back in the day, the information superhighway resembled a double-rutted prairie track. So, the thought slipped to the back of my mind before I could pester a librarian.
Flash forward about a decade, to when my girlfriend and I embarked on a driving tour of Ireland. After some visiting and touristing in the east, we struck out across the island to reach the western shore. We explored the grey rocky expanse known as the Burren, but my goal for the evening was to photograph the sunset from atop the Cliffs of Moher. You know the place, by sight if not by name. The Dread Pirate Roberts (or at least his stunt double) pursued Fezzik the Giant up that wall of stone in The Princess Bride. Though it hadn’t registered at the time, we were nearly at the summer solstice, meaning the sun took its own sweet time in going to bed. Sunsets are beautiful by themselves, but I remembered the story of the green flash and figured if it could be seen then I was in the best place to do so. After an hour or so of exploration at the hard edge of the island, we staked out a place at the high point of the cliffs. Before us was open, empty air; seven hundred feet of stacked layers of shales, mudstones, and sandstones served both to keep our feet dry and our blood pumping faster than normal. Behind us, the grey stone of O’Brien’s Tower tinted red in the evening light. We were joined by a handful of others to watched the sun’s departure. At a quarter til ten, I set my tripod and began clicking away my carefully rationed (non-digital ) shots as the sun set the sea on fire; I had budgeted three rolls of film per day, and was down to my last dozen exposures. At ten o’clock, the disk flattened against the horizon. As beautiful as the scene was, I wondered if the legendary phenomenon would show itself. And would I be able to capture it?
The sun was low enough and muted enough that I braved looking through the eyepiece and the polarized filter at the orb.
*Click* A moment of darkness as red sunlight exposed the film. Then the sun was back, narrower than ever.
*Click* Black, then back.
And a green glow washed across the sliver of sun. I sucked in the cool sea air in wonder. As my finger stabbed down on the button, the sun reverted to red, then melted away into the ocean.
I saw it. I missed the photographic trophy, but I beheld the phenomenon. After a pause, I joined in as the small audience quietly applauded the spectacle.