Alert WeatherBlog reader Bob Cantales and his early-rising carpool mates asked this question today:
"During yesterday's sunrise, there appeared to be a golden to orange beam of light similar to a rainbow from the sun at the horizon high into the sky. My carpool members are curious as to what caused this phenomenon?"
From your description, it sounds like what you observed was a "sun pillar." They look like golden search lights beamed straight up into the sky above a rising or setting sun. For those who missed the one Bob saw, here's a good picture. Here's another, from NASA. And, because they're so cool, one more.
Sun pillars are caused by sunlight, reflected off ice crystals in cirrus clouds. Because the crystals in these clouds are falling, they orient themselves, like falling leaves, with their longest dimensions in a horizontal position. That causes the sunlight to reflect toward the observer, creating the horizontal pillar effect.
But while they appear to be rising straight up above the sun, sun pillars are actually being reflected from crystals along a path that is approaching the observer - a bit like the "glitter path," or trail of sunlight or moonlight reflected off the surface of a lake or pond.
The color is produced by the color of the sunlight, which tends to be red or gold at sunset or sunrise. And that's because the low angle of the light sends it on a longer-than-usual path through the thickest layer of the atmosphere, which contains lots of dust. The dust absorbs and filters out most of the light's wavelengths, leaving the reds, oranges and yellows.
This sun pillar was evidently visible from many parts of Maryland. I spotted this message, from Monroe Harden, of Havre de Grace, on a list serve for satellite observers:
"Please pardon the off topic question and cross posting... but I would like to know if anyone happened to see a very large, bright sun pillar before sunrise, at about 0530 EDT, on May 10th, from the east coast of the USA.
"I saw this from my home in northeastern Maryland (Havre de Grace, by the top of the Chesapeake Bay), and it was shown on TV from a tower cam in Baltimore. A member of our local astronomy club said he saw it from the north side of the Washington DC beltway.
"I am curious about how large of an area can see the same sun pillar. If anyone outside of the area I mentioned (ie south of DC or north of Maryland), on or near the US east coast, saw this pillar, please let me know. To avoid list clutter you can email me privately at hardenm at sprynet dot com.
"A couple of photos of the pillar, taken from my back yard (with a Coolpix 4500, so this isn't entirely off topic for digital-astro.....) can be seen here: http://monroe.20m.com/pillar.htm