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Serendipity at Sunrise

On April 4, 2015, I set up binoculars at the waterfront in New Buffalo, MI, to watch a lunar eclipse as the moon settled over Lake Michigan. In click-bait-ese, what followed next was an amazing sight. Cutting to the chase: the sunlight reflecting off Chicago's tallest building appeared fiery red and amplified by the atmosphere.

Lunar Eclipse

The eclipse itself was rewarding. I arrived at the beach by 6:00 a.m. to set up binoculars on the breakwall in time for the 6:15 umbral eclipse. Though it was going to be a total lunar eclipse as seen from the western U.S., from my perspective it was only a partial eclipse before sunrise and the intervening horizon cut it short.

I'm not an astrophotographer, so my pictures taken in the dark through the binoculars with my point-and-shoot camera are awful. If you want to see the eclipse, go look at someone else's photos. The personal experience, however, was great. I watched as the shadow slowly encroached upon the pocked surface of the moon, obscuring prominent lunar features one after the other.

While the expectation is for the eclipsed portion of the moon to become reddish in color (explained in video link at Lunar Eclipses in 2015), I did not witness that effect. Instead, the dark side just got darker, obscuring all lunar features. The onset of twilight reinforced the effect. As the moon neared the horizon, ironically the illuminated portion of the moon was typical reddish while the eclipsed portion was not discernible.

Near sunrise, with the moon about one degree above the horizon, level with the red navigation marker shown in the photo, I lost sight of the moon and packed up my gear.

Sunrise Reflection

As I was walking back to my car, around 7:41 a.m. I looked back over the lake and saw a spectacle I've never seen before. To the west was apparently the Willis Tower, the tallest building in Chicago, seemingly ablaze. I mean, it was on fire, not the muted color of the photo above. At that instant, the morning sun was reflecting off the building with the incoming angle of incidence and the outgoing angle of reflection coinciding with the sun's azimuth and my location. In simple terms, I was at the right place at the right time on April 4, 2015.

From the height of a nearby dune in New Buffalo, you can occasionally see a handful of buildings along the Chicago skyline. However, the city is almost 40 miles away, so seeing conditions need to be good. On April 4, atmospheric effects bent the reflected light of the multi-tiered Willis Tower so that it was nicely amplified during the serendipitous moment when I saw the sunlight reflected.

To repeat this sighting, I predict I could view from further south down the beach each morning to keep in sync with the sun's daily northward trek along the horizon at sunrise in April. However, I'd need the atmosphere to help with the amplification. Or I can wait until the sun returns to that azimuth about two weeks before the September equinox (April 4 being about two weeks after the vernal equinox).

It was a spectacular, unexpected sight. End of click-bait.


The sun at 07:41 a.m. EDT on April 4, 2015. Azimuth is about 84 degrees; altitude is under 3 degrees. [Note: sky was set for South Bend, IN, east of New Buffalo.]

The direction of the reflected light, from Chicago to New Buffalo.

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