When Conditions Are Right, Glitter Can Appear on the Water

Updated: Jul 6

Sunlight and water together can give us many striking and beautiful phenomena: fantastic rainbows, magnificent halos around the sun and moon and more!

When the water is calm, you can see a reflection of what is above. (Photo by Angela Rafac)

If you have ever had the pleasure of relaxing by a large body of water on a sunny, windy day, you may have seen a spectacular display of small, sparkly sun drops dancing over the waving water. This is a phenomenon called sun glitter! But what is the science behind this magic?


It all starts with specular reflection. Specular means of or like a mirror. Specular reflection is a mirror-like reflection caused by light reflecting on a surface. A specular reflection from the sun on a surface of water is called a glint.

 

Words to know

Glint: To give out or reflect small flashes of light.

Phenomenon: A fact or situation that is observed to exist or happen.

Specular: Relating to or having the properties of a mirror.

 

Imagine a calm and still pond. The water reflects the images from above just like a mirror or glass. In this case, the entire surface of the water is one single glint. If you throw a rock into the water, the little ripples will distort the image a little, but you would still be able to recognize the reflection from above.


Wind blowing, birds landing or anything else causing larger waves will disrupt the reflection of what is on the shore. Instead of seeing a clear single reflection or glint, you will see many momentary flashes of light, or multiple glints.

Sun glitter on the water's surface. (Photo via Shutterstock)

These glints appear as the sunlight reflects off slopes of the waves. As the waves move, the slopes of the waves move, and the sunlight continues to reflect light off the moving slopes. Viola! You will see the magical dancing flickers of light known as sun glitter!

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