There are a number of rare natural phenomena that some people spend years looking for, even chasing. The green flash, flash spectrum, lunar eclipses, solar eclipses, the northern lights, and the Brocken spectre, to name a few. These events are more rare than rainbows and sunsets, in part because it requires specific planetary alignments as well as ideal weather conditions to observe them properly properly.
In just one of these phenomena, the Brocken spectre (or Glory), does the observer become a necessary part of the event. This occurs when the observer is on a high point, with the sun setting behind him, and a circular rainbow surrounds his shadow as it projects out over the landscape.
I’ve seen the Brocken spectre just one time, from a mountaintop just south of Ulaanbaatar in November of 2008 when I was hiking. I was coming back from a Buddhist site, where I’d gone to say goodbye to a friend on the day before I left the country. Down in the city the air was full of the dense pollution that hangs above if Ulaanbaatar for the cold months (which is about eight months of the year). But there is a clear line at an elevation where the fog stops, and so there was moment on my hike when I rose above this layer of pollution and into the fresh mountain air.
On my way back down, the sun was setting behind me, and the mountain’s shadow was looming over Ulaanbaatar. Then, as I was lowering back into that layer of smog, the Brocken spectre appeared for just a moment… my shadow seemed to cast over the city just like the mountain. Surrounded by a halo shaped rainbow. The whole event lasted no longer than a few seconds. By the time I thought to pull my camera up in front of my face, the vision was gone. But for one brief moment I felt like I was part of this amazing planetary alignment. I felt enormous and then I disappeared.
The world is a very very large place compared to any one man, but there are billions of us. Humanity’s ability to impact and change the planet and its ecosystems is undeniable. It’s for this reason that scientists are not referring to the world today as “modern” or “post-modern” “post-post-modern” or “contemporary”; instead the consensus is that we’ve entered a new geographic epoch that they refer to as the Anthropocene. For our effect is great on this planet.