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How Do Rainbows Form?

By Renny Vandewege

Rainbow over Canary Wharf, London, England. (Getty Images)

How do rainbows form?

They generally don't harbor gleaming pots of gold, but rainbows still symbolize hope for many around the world. In more technical terms, rainbows are meteorological and optical phenomena that result from light striking water.

Rainbows form when sunlight passes through water droplets of any kind, but most commonly through rain. As light enters a raindrop, it's refracted at the front of the drop, reflected at the back of the drop, and refracted yet again as it leaves the drop. This entire process is known as "dispersion" and the resulting wavelengths of dispersed light make up the various colors of the rainbow.

In fact, a rainbow is made up of more than 100 continuous colors, though distinct color bands may be apparent to an observer. The bands are the primary colors that make up the visible spectrum of the electromagnetic spectrum -- red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet -- with violet on the lower band of the rainbow and red on the upper band.

The sun will always be at the observer's back and the rainbow will form at an angle of 42 degrees to the observer, with the entire arc of a rainbow spanning 84 degrees across the horizon.

double rainbowOn occasion, light is dispersed twice through rain drops and a second rainbow forms at an angle of roughly 52 degrees. In the double rainbow, the second rainbow's colors are inverted, with red colors on the lower band and violet colors on the upper band.

Of course, rain isn't the only cause of rainbows. They can be seen any time water and light are mixed. Rainbows appear from waterfalls, ocean spray, water sprinklers, dew and fog. At night, rainbows can even result from strong moonlight.

So, how close can you get to a rainbow?

In theory, a rainbow doesn't physically exist, so nobody can ever get a specific distance away from a rainbow. If you ever see a person that seems to be under or next to a rainbow, that person will not be able to see the same rainbow as you and will see a different rainbow if the right light and water conditions exist.

Rainbows are a beautiful phenomena that form through a unique mix of water and light. Perhaps one day, we'll be lucky enough to find the pot of gold at the end, as well.

RELATED ON SKYE: 25 Stunning Rainbows Around the World


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Yes, wampj - phenomenON. The mistake calls into question why Mississippi State allows him to teach anything.

March 10 2013 at 9:21 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Thank you wampj - phenomenON. The mistake calls into question why Mississippi State allows him to teach anything.

March 10 2013 at 9:20 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Where's the photograph about the lightning appearing to strike the rainbow and the explanation about it? The article talks about how rainbows appear but nothing about the photo. Sure, the lightning bolt is not hitting the rainbow because the rainbow is an optical illusion, like a mirage. If AOL, or any web site for that matter, is going to use a photograph to lure someone to an article, there should be a section in the article explaining the photo.

March 10 2013 at 4:28 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I wish everyone could see a rainbow at NIGHT! It is the most beautiful view I have EVER seen; and of course our local news, here in Alabama, covered it. It lasted long into the night!

March 09 2013 at 10:04 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Wonderful article. The best rainbow I ever saw was in driving along the Lili Highway in Hawaii,
Gorgeous, Genevieve

March 09 2013 at 4:54 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

The 7 colors of the rainbow represents an eternal covenant between God and humanity. He Conferred seven basic moral precepts:the seven universal laws. The rainbow has seven colors, as if each will relate to each law.
1. Do not murder.
2. Do not steal.
3. Do not worship false gods.
4. Do not be sexually immoral.
5. Do not eat a limb removed from a live animal.
6. Do not curse God.
7. Set up courts and bring offenders to justice.
As a sign of the covenant, God made a rainbow appear, saying to Nóah and to his followers that whenever they should observe a rainbow, they should remember the established covenant. (Genesis 9 12:14)

March 09 2013 at 3:22 PM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to yomismo's comment
Arturo Becerra

There are 10 moral commandments not 7 (and no there are No 7 deadly sins either) Wages of sin is death that means any breaking commandment of the law which is 613 commandments can take someone to hell.
Nowhere in the bible does it say look at a rainbow to remember 7 commandments (shaking head)
Doing my own research I find that you neglect the 11th verse which actually tells why God established a covenant with a (rain)-bow Genesis 9:11-17
11 And I will establish my covenant with you; neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of a flood; neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth.
12 And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations:
goes on through to the 17th verse...
YOMISMO let God be true and all men liars...Rom.4:3
Poverbs 30:5 Every word of God is pure: he is a shield unto them that put their trust in him.
6 Add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar.
Be careful when using God's Word! Don't make up stuff!!
Peace Be With You

March 09 2013 at 7:23 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Hmmmmmm........The Rainbow does not have materiality, it is not an object, it is rather an illusion....
Lightning can strike only objects that have matter...

March 09 2013 at 2:49 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I do have a question, if I may? Can you clarify the upper and lower band colors and which is the reflected rainbow please? : )

March 09 2013 at 12:09 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Judy's comment
Arturo Becerra

From top to bottom when looking at a rainbow (at 42 degrees angle), the order of colors are Red (being on top), Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet (being at the bottom of the bow)
FYI Roy G. Biv (is an acrostic), is a way to remember the order of the colors ;-)
R ed
O range
Y ellow

G reen

B lue
I ndigo
V iolet

March 09 2013 at 7:00 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
ahhhhh clem

Years ago, while traveling to Hawaii on a Navy ship across the Pacific, I gazed with wonder at the sights of as many as 5 rainbows all at once on top of one another! Quite the sight for a midwestern novice of such sights. When we arrived I saw many times (It rains every day for at least a few minutes..LOL) the same sight.

March 09 2013 at 11:59 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Thank you for sharing your knowledge of the light refraction, reflection and dispersion the result of we call rainbows. It is a very interesting concept and we appreciate that you are willing to help educate us about it. = ) Bless you.

March 09 2013 at 11:57 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
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