Noaa scijinks why is the sky blue electricity physics formulas

The white light coming from the Sun is really made up of all the colors of the rainbow. We see all those colors when we look at rainbows. Raindrops act as tiny prisms when lit by the Sun, bending light and separating it into its different colors.

But why are there different colors? The light you see is just one tiny bit of all the kinds of light energy beaming around the Universe – and around you! Like energy passing through the ocean, light energy travels in waves, too. What makes one kind of light different from others is its wavelength – or range of wavelengths. Visible light includes the wavelengths our eyes can see. The longest wavelengths we can see look red to us. The shortest wavelengths we can see look blue or violet.

The wavelengths in this picture are not to scale. A red light wave is about 750 nanometers, while a blue or violet wave is about 400 nanometers. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. A human hair is about 50,000 nanometers thick! So these visible light wavelengths are very, very tiny.

As the white light from the Sun enters Earth’s atmosphere, much of the red, yellow, and green wavelengths of light (mixed together and still nearly white) pass straight through the atmosphere to our eyes. The blue and violet waves, however, are just the right size to hit and bounce off of the molecules of gas in the atmosphere. This causes the blue and violet waves to be separated from the rest of the light and become scattered in every direction for all to see. The other wavelengths stick together as a group, and therefore remain white.

So what happens to all the “non-blue” wavelengths? They are still mixed together, unscattered by the atmosphere, so they still appear white. The scattered violet and blue light dominates the sky, making it appear blue. What happens to the violet? Some of the violet light is absorbed by the upper atmosphere. Also, our eyes are not as sensitive to violet as they are to blue.

Closer to the horizon, the sky fades to a lighter blue or white. The sunlight reaching us from the horizon has passed through even more air than the sunlight reaching us from overhead. The molecules of gas have rescattered the blue light in so many directions so many times that less blue light reaches us. What Makes a Sunset red?

As the Sun gets lower in the sky, its light passes through more of the atmosphere to reach you. Even more of the blue and violet light is scattered, allowing the reds and yellows to pass straight through to your eyes without all that competition from the blues.

How much of the Sun’s light gets bounced around in Earth’s atmosphere and how much gets reflected back into space? How much light gets soaked up by land and water, asphalt freeways and sunburned surfers? How much light do water and clouds reflect back into space? And why do we care?

Sunlight carries the energy that heats Earth and powers all life on Earth. Our climate is affected by how sunlight is scattered, reflected back to space, or absorbed by forests, deserts, snow- and ice-covered surfaces, different types of clouds, smoke from forest fires, and other pollutants in the air.

That is why satellites can perform what is called remote sensing from space and reveal a great deal about the surface and about the atmosphere. Instruments on satellites such as the GOES, pictured above, can measure the intensity of light of different wavelengths. Analyzing that information, atmospheric scientists find out surface and atmospheric temperatures, levels of carbon dioxide, water vapor, pollutants, ozone, and other trace gases.

The next generation of GOES satellites, called the GOES-R series, will have even better imaging capabilities. The GOES-R series of weather satellites are developed by NOAA and NASA. The first satellite in the series, GOES-16, launched in 2016.