Fogbows are rainbows’ cousins

Fogbow over a shoreline, as seen from the perspective of a little hill, with pink flowers in the foreground and a distant lighthouse.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Cecille Kennedy in Newport, Oregon, caught this image of a fogbow on July 16, 2021. She wrote: “What appears like a white rainbow in this photo is a natural phenomena caused by fog. Thus it’s referred to as a fogbow. It appears white because the water droplets are much tinier than your average raindrop … Yaquina Head Lighthouse is visible at a distance in the upper right. At 93 feet [28 meters], it’s the tallest lighthouse in Oregon. The flowers are called fireweed because of their propensity to grow following fires. They are prevalent along the Oregon coast.” Thank you, Cecille!

A fogbow, or white rainbow

Fogbows are sometimes called white rainbows, or cloudbows or ghost rainbows. They’re made much as rainbows are, from the same configuration of sunlight and moisture. Rainbows happen when the air is filled with raindrops. You always see a rainbow in the direction opposite the sun. Fogbows are much the same, always opposite the sun, but fogbows are caused by the small droplets inside a fog or cloud rather than larger raindrops.

Look for fogbows in a thin fog when the sun is bright. You might see one when the sun breaks through a fog. Or watch for fogbows over the ocean.

Because the water droplets in fog are so small, fogbows have only weak colors or are colorless.

More on the search for fogbows

Les Cowley of the great website Atmospheric Optics says:

Look away from the sun and at an angle of 35-40 degrees from your shadow which marks the direction of the antisolar point [point directly opposite the sun]. Some fogbows have very low contrast so look for small brightenings in the misty background. Once caught, they are unmistakable.

The sun must be less than 30-40 degrees high unless you are on a hill or high up on a ship where the mist and fogbow can be viewed from above.

Fogbows are huge, almost as large as a rainbow and much, much broader.

Look here for Les Cowley’s explanation of how fogbows form.

Fogbow photos from the EarthSky community

Beach with low foamy waves rolling in under a fuzzy white arc, a fogbow.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Gene Peck in Hollywood Beach, California, captured this fogbow on October 31, 2020. He said “I was taking a morning walk in a clear sunny sky with an offshore fog bank. Within 20 minutes the fog moved in, enveloping the beach. I took this facing north-northwest, The fogbow lasted only a minute or 2, before the fog began dissipating.”
White rainbow above an icy river with trees on each side.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Sheryl R. Garrison caught this bow in Alberta, Canada, on October 26, 2020. Cloudbow or fogbow? Les Cowley of Atmospheric Optics told us: “Technically it is a cloudbow or fogbow. They are exactly the same phenomenon. But cloudbows appear in skies when there is no obvious ground level fog [as in this photo]. These bows with pastel colors and a white center need small water droplets compared to the larger raindrops of rainbows. The drops are suspended in humid air. You can sometimes see these bows when the air is freezing if the water drops remain supercooled and do not freeze.”
Fogbow over a desert landscape. The photographers shadow is also in the photo.
See the full-sized panorama here. | April Singer wrote on July 28, 2020: “This morning we had a little fog here in the high desert of New Mexico. We had rain the last few afternoons, and the ground is pretty saturated. And now this morning the sun was out. Perfect recipe for fog and apparently for a fogbow! First time I’ve captured one. This is a pano with my iPhone. I didn’t realize the bow was there until I saw the picture.” Lovely, April! Thank you.
White rainbow in misty air over a wooded landscape.
View larger at EarthSky Community Photos. | Peter Lowenstein caught this fogbow in Mutare, Zimbabwe, on April 29, 2020. He wrote: “Half-an-hour after the sun rose behind my house, a beautiful fogbow developed in the middle of a misty morning view from my front veranda. All the conditions were right – bright sunshine from the rear with the sun less than 20 degrees above the horizon and clearing clouds of mist at the antisolar point [point opposite the sun]. The scene was framed by a beautiful flowering poinsettia to the left, a lush banana grove to the right, and clear blue sky beginning to appear on top!”
Fogbow with very faint colors over a red-soil desert landscape.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Alan Nicolle in New South Wales, Australia, captured this image on July 16, 2019. He wrote: “I was out geocaching in the outskirts of Broken Hill, when I turned back to see this fogbow developing. I took quite a few photos with the iPhone, and rode back to the car on my bike. But, by the time I got back to the car to use my SLR, it had faded.” Thank you, Alan!
Faint white arc over rolling green landscape and straight country road.
Edith Smith in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, captured this fogbow on November 1, 2018. She wrote: “The camera spotted it before I did with eye, as I was too engrossed in foggy conditions.”
Diffuse white arc in slate blue dawn sky.
Wonderful fogbow caught by Robyn Smith in New Zealand on the morning of September 19, 2017 “… opposite the foggy sunrise.”
Diffuse white arc above bucolic scene of farmworkers in brushy field near dirt road.
Tommy Johnson captured this early morning fogbow near Jonesport, Maine, in August 2016. He wrote: “Early in the morning, and blueberry rakers are starting to fill their buckets with the fruit. I called out to them to look at the fogbow. It was the first time any of us had seen one.”
Partial white arc over bucolic scene with white fence and barn in distance.
GregDiesel Landscape Photography wrote in October 2015: “Saw my first fogbow / white rainbow. Photo taken with cell phone. Moyock, North Carolina.” Thank you, Greg!
Very diffuse white arc over blurry gold city lights, 2 bright dots in sky over fogbow.
Venus and Jupiter above a fogbow in Blacklough, Dungannon, Ireland. Mars is up there, too, but tough to see. John Fagan captured them all in October 2015.
Cloudy-looking white arc over bright green field bordered with trees.
Eileen Claffey in Brookline, Massachusetts, captured this fogbow over a field in September 2014.
Diffuse white arc over rocky seacoast with white lighthouse in distance.
Katherine Keyes Millet captured this fogbow in July 2014 at Winter Island Park in Salem, Massachusetts.
White arc in dark blue sky reflected in a lake bordered by evergreen trees.
Thomas Kast in Finland captured this fogbow in August, 2013. He wrote: “In this rather cold August night (+8 C [46 F]) there was patchy fog, especially in open fields. This lake remained clear for a long time. At one point I saw this white bow with moon in waning gibbous phase behind me.”
Rocks on seacoast with faintly colored whitish arc nearly touching them on left, higher on right end.
Jim Grant caught this fogbow over Sunset Cliffs in San Diego on October 15, 2012. He wrote: “The skies were sunny and clear, and then the fog rolled in, and with it this beautiful fogbow.”
Pale arc over fog over brown stubbly field past a wire fence.
Lynton Brown of Australia captured this fogbow over a barren field in October 2012.

Bottom line: Fogbows, or white rainbows, always appear opposite the sun. Watch for them in a thin fog, when the sun is bright. You might see one when the sun breaks through a fog. Or watch for fogbows over the ocean.

July 18, 2021

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