WRAL WeatherCenter Blog

Rainbows have a rich and long history

Posted March 14, 2011

I will be the first to admit that I love studying severe storms but dislike having to experience them. Don’t get me wrong, I love when we get the garden variety thunderstorm that causes no problems but just gives us a good soaking. I love to hear the rain on my roof and see how it makes the colors of spring and summer much more vivid in flowers and trees around me. I even love the smell of the air after the storm has moved past! What I don’t like is the wind damage, the tornadoes or the lightning fires that sometimes follow severe thunderstorms.


This past Thursday, when storms were moving across our area, I was out driving my kids to their evening activities. It was raining heavily and the wind was blowing my car around on the road. I kept a watchful eye to the sky because I knew we were under a severe thunderstorm watch and I knew one or two tornadoes were possible. I was anxious and worried that we would see another severe weather event like the one I had just worked the previous Sunday. The skies were dark and the clouds looked angry so needless to say my attention was pinned to the sky every chance I got to look away while driving.  (I was in my neighborhood and driving slowly just in case you were worried!)

After the heavy rain let up, I noticed a rainbow in the sky. Around every turn in my neighborhood, I saw the rainbow. This seemed unusual because most rainbows I’ve seen in the past have been just half the rainbow. This one was full across the sky. I actually pulled over and watched it for at least five minutes. I love rainbows because of what they represent and the meteorological aspect to them.

Rainbows have a rich and long history dating back in time to Noah’s Ark. According to the Bible, rainbows are a promise from God to never flood the earth again. Some cultures view rainbows as omens and others see them as lucky.

The actual scientific cause of the rainbow was discovered by a German monk named Theodoric in 1304. He watched what happened to sunlight as it passed through a large globe filled with water. He documented the reflection and refraction processes that occur when the sun shines through rain drops. The rainbow is divided into bands displaying the different colors of the light spectrum and is formed by the refraction and reflection of the sun’s rays in the drop of rain. Reflection is the return of light waves from the surface of the rain drop. Refraction is the amount by which a propagating wave is bent and the change in direction of a propagating wave (light or sound) when passing from one medium to another.

In order to see a rainbow, three things must be present. Rain, sunshine and the person viewing the rainbow must be between the rain drops and the sun. The lower the sun is in the sky, late afternoon or evening, the higher the arc of the rainbow. The rainbow I saw last week had a high arc so it occupied the whole sky from my vantage point. This makes them much easier to see! The color scheme of the rainbow should come in this order: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Best time and place to see a rainbow is near sunset when you are looking to the eastern part of the sky that is opposite of the sun.


We have already started our shift from winter storms to thunderstorms, so rainbows will be much more numerous. Rainbows remind me to slow down and enjoy the show Mother Nature put on for us.


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  • Mike Moss Mar 15, 2011

    I think the most vivid one I remember seeing was in Tallahassee back in the late 1980s. Saw it from the upper floors of the meteorology building at Florida State late one summer afternoon as a Thunderstorm departed slowly to the east. Conditions were just about perfect, with sizable, fairly uniform raindrops, no clouds blocking the low sun in the west, and some very dark clouds still in place behind the bow to the east. End result made the main bow seem to glow like neon, the secondary bow was clearly visible,and there were several of the neon pink and green supernumeraries just inside the main bow. A beautiful sight, and it lasted a good while too!

  • blytle Mar 15, 2011

    At the end of last October, my husband and I were returning from a Mediterranean cruise. We had to connect with a flight at Heathrow airport in London. While going through the terminal, we looked out and saw the most vivid full rainbow right outside of where we were. I've never seen such a striking rainbow so well formed and bright. We were mesmerized!

  • shutterbug Mar 14, 2011

    I like them also, In Newton Grove, there was a very vivid one and after a few minutes, a second, less vivid one appeared outside the first one. Didn't have time to get the camera and photograph it, however.