If you have ever stood on a beach before sunset and gawked at a gleaming line of light extending toward the horizon, you have seen a glitter path.
What causes this spectacular optical phenomenon? Glitter paths are made up of many bright points of light reflecting off tiny ripples, waves, and undulations on the water surface and back at a sensor (for instance, a camera or human eye). Together, these points of light make up areas of sunglint. The appearance of glitter paths on water varies depending on the height of the Sun above the horizon, the height of the surface waves, and the position of the observer.
For instance, if the Sun had been directly overhead and above perfectly calm water, I would have seen a circular reflection that looked much like the Sun in the sky. However, when I took this photograph from Rodeo Beach near sunset in December 2015, the reflection appeared as a long elliptical line of light because the Sun was quite low in the sky. Note how much the roughness of the water surface affected the glitter path. Near the shore, where waves had just broken and the water surface was filled with foam, the glitter path was significantly wider than it was in the smoother waters farther off shore.
Sunglint is visible from space as well. In the satellite image of California above, which the Terra satellite captured on the morning of June 22, 2015, notice the line of light running over the Pacific Ocean. This line of sunglint traces the track of Terra’s orbit. If the ocean surface had been completely smooth, a sequence of perfect reflections of the Sun would have appeared in a line along the track of the satellite’s orbit. In reality, ocean surfaces are chaotic and often in motion due to the constant churn of waves and winds. As a result, light reflecting off the surface was scattered in many directions. This left the blurred, washed out line of light along the satellite’s orbital track that you see here instead.
Editor’s Note: Ground to Space is a recurring series of posts on NASA Earth Observatory’s Earth Matters blog that pairs ground photography and satellite imagery of the same feature or phenomenon. If you have a photograph that you think would be a good candidate, please email Adam Voiland.