The picture below is from on top of Mt. Shasta at sunrise. The sun was directly behind me when I took the picture and it appears to be casting a shadow on.... the sky itself?

Can anyone explain what the shadow is being cast on? There don't appear to be any clouds or anything.

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ I think the answer becomes more clear if you invert it. What causes the sky opposite the light of the sunrise to be lit up? It's important to remember that shadows are not a 'something' but rather the absence of something. If your intuition were correct, then all the sky along the horizon (at least) should be absolutely dark since the sun is behind you. The only logical answer is that the light of the sun is be reflected to the camera by the sky. Really, though, it's probably the haze that's obvious from the image (i.e. pollution) that you are mostly seeing. $\endgroup$
    – JimmyJames
    Commented Jun 27, 2016 at 15:59
  • $\begingroup$ It's also worth comparing with the Brochen spectre effect where the 'cone' in a sense goes (appears to go) the other way (and the shadow is on a more obvious very close cloud/mist. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 29, 2016 at 9:47
  • $\begingroup$ It's a wonderful sight. We need to make a name for it. $\endgroup$
    – Octopus
    Commented Sep 1, 2017 at 1:08

4 Answers 4


I found this site

Seen from their summits almost all mountain shadows look triangular regardless of the mountain's shape. This is a perspective effect. You are standing at the top edge of a long tunnel of shadowed air and looking along its length. The tunnel's cross section is the shape of the mountain but its "end" is so far away that it looks insignificant. The finite size of the sun also causes the umbral (fully shaded) parts of the shadow to converge and eventually taper away. The tapering sets limits to the umbral length of shadows. That of the Earth is over a million miles. That of a high mountain can be two to three hundred miles. Triangular shadows are not seen from objects much smaller than mountains because their shadows are not long enough.

On another page, it says:

Mountain shadows at sunrise and sunset are immensely long tunnels of unlit air, crepuscular rays in fact.

From the summit, perspective effects nearly always make the shadow triangular regardless of the mountain's profile. You are standing at the top edge of the shadowed tunnel and looking out along its length which can be more than a hundred miles. Only the shadow's end carries much information about the mountain shape and it is so far away and in any event blurred by the 0.5º angular spread of the sun's rays that it is hardly visible

To elaborate on "unlit air", as an answer to your "There don't appear to be any clouds or anything," air itself reflects light, as is evident at night when it is dark. It is also seen in the shadow of the earth as the sun rises on a clear sky, a deep blue separated often from the pink/orange of sunrise and sunset. That was the beginning and end of a day in the variable hour ancient calendars.

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    $\begingroup$ Interesting. The simplest things are often more complicated than you can imagine. Nice answer $\endgroup$
    – Bob Bee
    Commented Jun 27, 2016 at 4:34
  • $\begingroup$ Also, Mt. Shasta is HUGE and the area is very flat. You can see it from Klamath Falls, which is over 80 miles away. $\endgroup$
    – corsiKa
    Commented Jun 27, 2016 at 15:53
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    $\begingroup$ Also on the note of air reflecting light: that's what causes the twilight periods. The sun isn't actually visible because it's below the horizon, but the sky is lit up by its light in the upper atmosphere being reflected back down. $\endgroup$
    – jpmc26
    Commented Jun 27, 2016 at 22:37
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    $\begingroup$ The sun was behind the questioner. Mountain shadows are anti-crepuscular rays anther than crepuscular rays. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 28, 2016 at 18:16
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    $\begingroup$ It would be more accurate to say that air scatters some of the light rather than reflects it. Some of that scattered light is scattered backwards. The same is true for the twilight effect mentioned by @jpmc26. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 28, 2016 at 18:44

Why should a shadow be cast on something?

Look at this picture taken at sunset:

enter image description here

What is that dark blue band at the horizon?

Answer: the shadow of the Earth itself:

enter image description here

In a certain way, we can say that the night sky itself is the result of the shadow of the Earth being cast on the sky (think about it).

Basically, when you are standing on top of the mountain, you are seeing a portion of the sky in which it is already night. The effect is even clearer in other pictures, like this one:

enter image description here

The sky is not completely dark in the cone of shadow because of scattering from the atmosphere surrounding the cone, so it retains that orange-ish or blue-ish color, depending on the hour the photo was taken.

I include a (totally professional) sketch illustrating the phenomenon:

enter image description here

Update: the role of the atmosphere

It looks like that my answer was a bit too synthetic and the role of the atmosphere was not so clear. This is my fault, so I would like to clarify this point.

The presence of the atmosphere is fundamental for the phenomenon. In fact, if the atmosphere was not present, we would see a pitch black sky, as we all know having seen photos taken from the moon. The atmosphere, and in particular the phenomenon of Rayleigh scattering, is responsible for the color of the sky.

What happens basically is that air molecules hit by light rays from the sun scatter it with an intensity proportional to the inverse fourth power of the wavelength, $I \propto \lambda^{-4}$: since blue-ish has a shorter wavelength than green-ish, red-ish etc., the sky results blue (so why are sunsets red?).

The portion of the atmosphere in the shadow cone of the mountain is not hit directly by the solar rays, but only by light scattered by the atmosphere outside the shadow cone. This means that the color of the atmosphere in the cone will be quite the same as the color outside the cone, only much darker.

So, in a certain sense, we can say that the shadow is being cast on the atmosphere itself.

My rethorical question (Why should a shadow be cast on something?) was perhaps misleading, but I only meant that the shadow was not cast on a solid object or on a cloud.

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    $\begingroup$ I think this answer is misleading. The shadow would not be seen if there was no matter around to reflect the light from behind. So in that sense, a shadow has to be cast on something. That is equally true for all the examples shown here. $\endgroup$
    – Thriveth
    Commented Jun 27, 2016 at 8:47
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    $\begingroup$ The atmosphere does not count? Other answers told that the sky itself is responsible, having cloud or not $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 27, 2016 at 16:05
  • $\begingroup$ @LuisMasuelli, I have updated the answer to clarify this point. $\endgroup$
    – valerio
    Commented Jun 27, 2016 at 20:48
  • $\begingroup$ @Thriveth, You are right, I was too ambiguous. I updated my answer to clarify this point. $\endgroup$
    – valerio
    Commented Jun 27, 2016 at 20:50

What is this shadow being cast upon? The sun was directly behind me when I took the picture and it appears to be casting a shadow on.... the sky itself?

It's the volumetric shadow of the mountain itself being cast on the sky itself. A mountain is not necessarily needed. Sometimes even a bit of smoke can create a nice volumetric shadow:

Volumentric shadow from a jet contrain
Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Vapour_shadow.jpg

Even better,

Shuttle plume shadow points to the Moon
Source: https://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap111127.html

Note: The bright white object in the above image is the nearly-full Moon rather than the Sun.

Closer to the question at hand,

Source: https://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap110705.html

The explanation from Astronomy Picture of the Day (emphasis mine):

The Mount Teide volcano itself does not have the strictly pyramidal shape that its geometric shadow might suggest. The triangle shadow phenomena is not unique to the Mt. Teide, though, and is commonly seen from the tops of other large mountains and volcanoes. A key reason for the strange dark shape is that the observer is looking down the long corridor of a sunset (or sunrise) shadow that extends to the horizon. Even if the huge volcano were a perfect cube and the resulting shadow were a long rectangular box, that box would appear to taper off at its top as its shadow extended far into the distance, just as parallel train tracks do.

  • $\begingroup$ Awesome pictures, especially the last one! $\endgroup$
    – valerio
    Commented Jun 28, 2016 at 20:35
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    $\begingroup$ @valerio92 -- Personal preference: I like the second one. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 29, 2016 at 0:56

Plain and simple answer: yes, the sky itself. Unlit sky is black, the color of the sky comes from scattering of sunlight. So the dark parts are the ones where it's night already (they don't see the sun because the mountain is in the way), the rest still has evening.


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