How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works

Question 351

What makes the clouds white - or having colors at sunset and why is the sky gray on a cloudy day?
The water droplets in clouds are quite large; large enough to be good antennas for all colors of light. As light passes by those droplets, some of it scatters (is absorbed by the antenna/water droplets and is reemitted by the antenna/water droplets). Since there is no color preference in this scattering from large droplets, the scattered light has the same color as the light that illuminated the cloud. In the daytime, the sunlight is white so the clouds appear white. But at sunrise or sunset, the sun's light is mostly red (the blue light has been scattered away by the atmosphere before it reached the clouds) so the clouds appear red, too. If the clouds are very thick, they may absorb enough light (or scatter enough upward into space) to appear gray rather than white. Another way to see why the clouds are white is to realized that light reflects from every surface of the water droplets. As the light works its way through the random maze of droplets, it reflects here and there and eventually finds itself traveling in millions of random directions. When you look at a cloud, you see light coming toward you from countless droplets, traveling in countless different directions. You interpret this type of light, having the sun's spectrum of wavelengths but coming uniformly from a broad swath of space, as being white. These two views of how light travels in a cloud (absorption and reemission from droplets or reflections from droplet surfaces) turn out to be exactly equivalent to one another. They are not different physical phenomena, but rather two different ways to describe the same physical phenomena.

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