How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works

Question 953

Could you please give me a precise explanation of light scattering in relation to blue moons and red sunsets. Do dust particles, or whatever, facilitate the transmission of some wavelengths and not others? — DW
While the expression "blue moon" usually refers to the infrequent occurrence of second full moon in a calendar month, there have been rare occasions when the moon truly appeared blue. In those cases, an unusual fire or volcanic eruption filled the air with tiny clear particles that had just the right sizes to resonantly scatter away the red portion of the visible light spectrum so that only bluish light from the moon was able to pass directly to the viewer's eyes. The moon thus appeared blue.

Red sunsets are much more common and they are caused by Rayleigh scattering—the non-resonant scattering of light by particles that are much smaller than the light's wavelength. While Rayleigh scattering is rather weak, it's weaker for long wavelength light (red light) than it is for short wavelength light (violet light). As a result, blue and violet lights are scattered more than red light; making the sky appear blue and the sun and moon appear red, particularly when they are low on the horizon and most of their blue light is scattered away before it reaches your eyes. When there is extra dust in the air, such as after a volcanic eruption, Rayleigh scattering is enhanced and the red sunsets are particularly intense.


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