How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works

Question 352

When I look up at the sky on a clear day, there is the sun, then a surrounding circle of white-blue light covering maybe half the sky, encircled by deep blue down to the horizon, followed by a white layer at the horizon itself. Please explain these zones.
The ring that you see surrounding the sun is probably the 22° halo caused by refraction from ice crystals in the upper atmosphere. These tiny ice crystals are hexagonal prisms and they deflect the light that passes through them to form a ring of light around the sun. Because the particles are large enough to bend all the colors of light equally, the ring appears white—or blue-white when superimposed on the blue sky. The deep blue of the surrounding sky is caused by Rayleigh scattering of the sunlight passing through it. In this process, small groups of air molecules and tiny dust particles deflect sunlight toward your eye. Since they deflect short wavelength light (blue light) more effectively than long wavelength light (red light), they give the sky a bluish glow. Finally, the white appearance of the horizon is probably light scattered toward your eyes by surface haze. Relatively large particles in the air scatter sunlight in all directions so that you see a white glow from the air near the ground.

A wonderful reference for some of these ideas is "Rainbows, Halos, and Glories" by Robert Greenler.


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