Rainbows: A Rare Natural Phenomenon

Rainbows, appearing during rainfall or right after the rain stops, are a beautiful though fairly rare optical and meteorological phenomena. The multicolored arc is caused by reflection of light in water droplets in the Earth’s atmosphere, resulting in a spectrum of light appearing in the sky. Rainbows caused by sunlight always appear in the section of sky directly opposite the sun.

I captured this rainbow in the Eastern sky looking toward the Short Hill Mountains just as the rain was ending and the sun broke through the clouds.


A rainbow does not exist in a particular location in the sky or at a specific distance, but comes from any water droplets viewed from a certain angle relative to the sun’s rays. The rainbow’s apparent position depends on the observer’s location and the position of the sun. All raindrops refract and reflect the sunlight in the same way, but only the light from some raindrops reaches the observer’s eye. This light is what constitutes the rainbow for that observer.

A rainbow spans a continuous spectrum of colors. Any distinct bands perceived are an artifact of human color vision, and no banding of any type is seen in a black-and-white photo of a rainbow, only a smooth gradation of intensity to a maximum, then fading towards the other side. For colors seen by the human eye, the most commonly cited and remembered sequence is Newton’s seven-fold red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. (source: Wikipedia)

Rainbows form a complete circle, but we only see the top part of the rainbow because the Earth’s horizon blocks our view of the lower arc. To see a full circle rainbow, one would have to be able to look down on it with the sun behind you, which is only possible from an aircraft (or skydiving as in the photo below).

Circular rainbow_wikipedia

A circular rainbow observed by a skydiver over Rochelle, Illinois (Wikipedia)

Amazing things happen in Nature, but all too often we take them for granted. If we take the time to look just a little deeper, we will discover fascinating things and events unfolding around us every day.

19 thoughts on “Rainbows: A Rare Natural Phenomenon

  1. A beautiful article. No wonder we can’t find the pot-o-gold. We cannot see the other end!

  2. I always wonder what rainbows would look like if we could see more colors, like birds or butterflies can. Maybe the sky is full of rainbows all the time, and we’re just blind to them.

    • My husband saw it and called me outside. Rainbows don’t last long. I could see it fading as I stood watching.

  3. What a beautiful pic of a rainbow, You know as kids, we always did believe in that “pot of gold”. Your articles are always well written and interesting.

    • Thank you, Nona. The myths we believed as children were fun. I remember seeing them while driving with my parents and always wondered where the “ends” were.

    • I have to confess I didn’t know very much about rainbows at all until I wrote this post, so I learned something too!

  4. AWESOME (and I mean that: )
    Thanks Jo Ann!
    Have you ever attempted the Black & White version? It sounds quite interesting too: )

    • Thanks, Deb. If you mean have I attempted to photograph a rainbow in black and white – I don’t know if my camera even takes black and white pictures.

    • Well, thank you. We’re really busy now putting in a large garden and doing some landscaping, but every now and then something happens that I really want to write about!

  5. WOW an amazing photo of a circular rainbow. Did you know we all have our own personal rainbow, each person views the rainbow differently depending on where you are standing, and you can never reach the end of the rainbow it will move away, that pot of gold is so elusive


    • I know what the viewer sees depends on the location of the viewer and the position of the sun, so, yes, we in a sense, we do all have our own personal rainbow!

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