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Photographers chase Yosemite’s rare moonlight rainbows

On a clear night in Yosemite, only a few times each year, the full moon hits a misty spray of the highest waterfall in the park, creating a nighttime rainbow that is visible only through a camera lens. But this year, Yosemite Falls, which normally flows until August, will be dry by June, making more moonbow sightings uncertain. Special correspondent Sandra Hughes reports.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now a look at some of the wonders of the country’s first wilderness preserve.

    Special correspondent Sandra Hughes reports from the Western Sierra Nevada Mountain Range.

  • SANDRA HUGHES:

    In its 125th year as a national park, Yosemite remains as beautiful as it is popular. On most weekends, just getting inside the park takes patience.

    But the 1,100-square-mile natural wonder in Northern California is worth the wait for the 4 million visitors who travel here every year from all over the world.

  • CHILD:

    Yosemite.

  • GARY HART, Photographer:

    I think it’s the most beautiful place in the world. This time of year in particular is kind of — I call it — spring kind of the postcard Yosemite.

  • SANDRA HUGHES:

    Gary Hart understands Yosemite’s draw. A nature photographer who has shot every corner of this park…

  • GARY HART:

    I got it.

  • SANDRA HUGHES:

    … Hart leads photography expeditions for students out to capture Yosemite’s famous and lesser known wonders.

  • GARY HART:

    Have you checked your polarizer, because it’s — it actually is making a significance difference, especially when you go that sheen on the rocks there.

  • MAN:

    Oh, yes.

  • SANDRA HUGHES:

    Over a four-day journey through the park, Hart reveals his secret spots for amazing shots, capturing iconic landscapes, beautiful waterfalls, and lining up Yosemite Valley to perfectly frame the rising moon.

  • MAN:

    Oh, this is awesome.

  • SANDRA HUGHES:

    As a photographer, what’s it like when you capture that just perfect picture here in Yosemite?

  • GARY HART:

    No, it’s euphoria. It’s great.

    For me, it’s trying to come with something that I have never seen, which isn’t really easy. It’s one of the most photographed locations in the world.

  • SANDRA HUGHES:

    On this expedition, Hart and his students are chasing a photo of a fleeting natural phenomenon, which can occur on a clear night only a couple of times each year.

    When the full moon hits a misty spray from Yosemite Falls at just the right angle, it creates a moonbow, a nighttime rainbow visible only through a camera lens. It’s a shot that Hart has gotten before. But, this year, a moonbow sighting is uncertain.

  • KARI COBB, Ranger, Yosemite National Park:

    It’s a pretty phenomenal event. Things definitely have to be in line for it to happen.

  • SANDRA HUGHES:

    Right, right.

  • KARI COBB:

    So, sometimes, it doesn’t happen. Sometimes, it happens multiple times throughout the year. It just really depends on the moon and the water.

  • SANDRA HUGHES:

    This stick measures the height of the Merced River, which runs through the middle of Yosemite. An average snowfall would raise the river level to about 12 feet. But after four years of drought, as you can see, the river is below three feet.

    That means that Yosemite Falls, which normally flows until August, will be dry this year by June.

  • KARI COBB:

    You need waterfalls, and most of the time, you need big waterfalls. So what the drought means for the moonbow is that there may not be enough water in Yosemite Falls to create that mist, and to create that moonbow.

  • SANDRA HUGHES:

    Though Hart hopes to give his students some moonbow experience tonight, he knows that, this year, it’s a long shot.

  • GARY HART:

    We’re kind of in uncharted waters in terms of the spring flow. It’s just — as far as I know, it’s never been this low this time of year.

  • SANDRA HUGHES:

    At dusk, a bright full moon rises in just the right position under a cloudless, clear sky. Hart and his students make the nighttime hike to the base of Yosemite Falls, knowing it still may not be enough.

    So, it’s not looking good right now?

    (CROSSTALK)

  • GARY HART:

    It really — it really — it really isn’t.

  • SANDRA HUGHES:

    As the moon moves in and then slowly out of position, the mist at the base of the falls is too low to catch the light. Mother Nature may have spoiled the moonbow.

  • GARY HART:

    I’m not ready to toss in the towel yet. I’m going to give a little bit of time and see if we can get a little bit more light on the base of the fall. And I would really like to get my people a little bit of color.

  • SANDRA HUGHES:

    Or will she?

  • GARY WADE, Photography Student:

    The other Gary has an image.

  • GARY HART:

    Spectacular.

  • GARY WADE:

    Oh, wow, that is better than I had seen.

  • MAN:

    That is a moonbow.

  • GARY HART:

    That is a moonbow.

  • GARY WADE:

    I have seen these pictures of the full great bows. But when we have a drought like we have right now, this is spectacular. Love it.

  • GARY HART:

    It’s pretty cool, a rainbow caused by moonlight.

  • SANDRA HUGHES:

    With a fraction of its water flow, Yosemite Falls creates just enough spray to do its part with the moon and sky to create the amazing effect, before disappearing.

    Soon, Yosemite Falls will follow suit, and this magical moment will be all dried up for another year.

    I’m Sandra Hughes for the PBS NewsHour in Yosemite National Park.

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