Yesterday when approaching Bergen airport, I saw something super cool: The lower half of a rainbow!
Even though I grabbed my phone and snapped a picture in record time, I didn’t manage to capture it. Bummer! But that doesn’t keep me from writing about it while showing you a “normal” rainbow I took a picture of a couple of minutes later.
Have you ever seen the lower half of a rainbow?
But can you imagine it? A u-shaped rainbow?
Have you ever seen anything like that before? It’s not something that we are used to seeing, at least not if we are looking a) at rainbows that are occurring on natural rain “curtains” and b) while we are on the ground. Let me explain…
Under perfect conditions, a rainbow is a full circle
Imagine you are a floating in space, looking at a curtain of rain drops. The sun is shining from behind you onto that curtain. What you then see on that rain curtain is a full rainbow circle, purple towards the middle and red towards the outside.
The size of the rainbow depends on how far away from the rain curtain you are. Imagine looking at the shadow that your head is making on the rain curtain. The line from your eyes to the shadow of your head will be our reference. Now imagine looking at any point on the rainbow. The line from your eyes to any point on the rainbow will be at a 40 to 42 degree angle to the reference line (40 degrees if you are looking at a purple point, 42 if you are looking at a red point, anything in between for the other colors).
Tweaking the size of the rainbow
Now imagine moving the rain curtain farther away. The angle between the reference line and the line to the rainbow stays the same, but the further away the rain curtain, the larger the rainbow. And vice versa: The closer the rain curtain, the smaller the rainbow!
So now imagine a nice curtain of droplets that you can walk towards and away from (sprinklers! garden hoses!) — the further you walk away, the larger the rainbow gets. And the closer you come, the more it shrinks again.
Standing on the ground, you only see the upper half
If you walk close enough to the rain curtain, you can actually see a full rainbow. But typically when we think of rainbows, we think of those occurring naturally, and then the rain curtains aren’t as neat and tidy as those from a sprinkler, and rainbows that we see are usually far far away, and thus really big. And that is why we aren’t used to seeing the lower half of a rainbow: Where the lower half would be there isn’t any rain curtain for it to appear on, because there is ground there! And the only way not to have the rainbow hit the ground is either have it close enough in front of us so it’s too small to even reach the ground, or to look at it from a plane that is high enough above the ground that even a large rainbow has enough space above the ground to fully appear on the rain curtain.
So where do we go from here? I need to a) play with sprinklers and take pictures of rainbows! b) draw illustrations of the stuff I tried to describe above, and c) hope that I’ll be faster next time to finally get my u-shaped rainbow picture from a plane!