Astrophotographer Göran Strand of Sweden kindly gave us permission to publish this photo, which shows a double rainbow … and a phenomenal double red rainbow. He shot the upper image in the afternoon, with the sun about 27 degrees above the horizon. He shot the lower photo with the sun 2 degrees above the horizon. Notice two things: the height of the rainbows above the horizon, and their colors.
The upper rainbow is an ordinary double rainbow (if any rainbow, especially a double rainbow, can be called ordinary). Rainbows happen when sunlight shines through raindrops. If the sun is behind you, and if you see the sun sunlight emerging from many raindrops at once, you see a mosaic of light spread out in an arc in the sky: a rainbow. Double rainbows happen when sunlight inside a raindrop is reflected twice instead of once.
The height of a rainbow depends on the sun. The lower the sun, the higher the rainbow. You can see evidence of this fact by looking at the red rainbow photo, shot when the sun was setting. See how much higher in the sky it arcs than the other double rainbow?
It’s rare to see a red rainbow. I’ve seen only one in all my decades of skywatching … of course, I live in Texas, where it doesn’t rain much. The red rainbow I saw was in an even-drier place. I spotted it early one morning decades ago, around sunup, while driving on the dirt road leading from Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. That is such a magical place, and I fancied at the time that the magic of the canyon helped create the red rainbow. Not so.
Les Cowley of the great website Atmospheric Optics says that red rainbows are created when there is a low sun so that, he says, the blue and green of its rays are weakened by scattering during the long journey through the atmosphere. Les adds:
Sunset and sunrise rays travel long paths through the lower atmosphere where they are scattered by air molecules and dust. Short wavelength blues and greens are scattered most strongly leaving the remaining transmitted light proportionately richer in reds and yellows. The result, glorious sunsets and red rainbows.
The lesson here is that, if you’re watching a sunset, and there’s rain in the air, turn in the direction opposite the sun and watch for the elusive red rainbow.
P.S. By the way, when I googled the search term “Chaco Canyon rainbow” I found many rainbow images over this desert place. Maybe there’s some magic happening there, after all.
Bottom line: Red rainbows happen when the sun is on the horizon. They’re created for much the same reason that a sunset or sunrise looks red – because, when the sun is low, the blue and green of its rays are weakened by scattering during the long journey to your eyes through Earth’s atmosphere. The red light travels through more directly. Voila, you see a red rainbow.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.