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Facts about Rainbows

Updated on October 18, 2012
Shallow rainbow produced by high sun
Shallow rainbow produced by high sun | Source
High rainbow occur when the sun is low in the sky
High rainbow occur when the sun is low in the sky | Source
  • You need sun and rain to form a rainbow, but it doesn’t have to be raining where you are. The rain could be overhead or a mile or more away.
  • Not surprisingly rainbows are rare in the desert. Luckily I live in Lancashire and we get lots of rain showers. I see rainbows about twice a month on average and I bet I’d see more if I wasn’t stuck inside at work most of the week!
  • When the sun is low in the sky you get a taller rainbow. Therefore sunrise and sunset produce the tallest rainbows.
  • Big raindrops produce the brightest rainbows. Hurray for heavy rain showers!
  • Although we usually see them as semi circles or less, rainbows have the potential to be complete circles. Normally the lower half of the circle is below the horizon, but if you are in a plane or the sun is low and you are in the mountains you might see more of the circle.

Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain
Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain | Source

Rainbow Mnemonic

Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain is a commonly used mnemonic for remembering the order of the colours in a primary rainbow. Going from from the outside to the inside - Red Orange Yellow Green Blue Indigo Violet. In a secondary rainbow the order is reversed.

However, because the colours actually mingle at the edges we actually see a much wider range of colours and shades in a rainbow.

The end of the rainbow
The end of the rainbow | Source

Rainbow's End

It is impossible to reach the end of a rainbow, because the rainbow moves away as you go towards it. But seeing the end of this particular rainbow so clearly I could understand that people might go mad feeling that they could reach the actual end of it, but never quite managing to.

In Irish myth leprechauns, who are capricious creatures, are said to hide their pots of gold at the end of rainbows.

Red Rainbow

The reddest rainbows occur at sunset and sunrise. This is because when the sun is very low in the sky the rays have further to travel through the lower atmosphere and get increasingly dispersed by dust and particles. The green and blue light waves get more dispersed than the red ones hence rainbows which look mostly red.

Double Rainbows

The main rainbow is known as the primary rainbow, but outside it a fainter secondary rainbow is often visible. Together they are often described as a double rainbow. Because of the way light refracts through water droplets in a primary rainbow the red is on the outside of the bow, in a secondary rainbow the light is on the inside of a bow.

The dark sky between the two rainbows is called Alexander’s Dark Band. It’s named after the ancient Greek philosopher Alexander of Aphrodisias, because he was the first person we know of to have described it in writing.

Twinned Rainbows

A bit like conjoined twins this is where a rainbow appears to split part way along and then rejoin. It is a very rare phenomenon.

Double Rainbow
Double Rainbow | Source
iridescent cloud in vapour trail
iridescent cloud in vapour trail | Source

Iridescent Cloud and other Rainbow-like Effects

There are some other phenomena which produce rainbow colours in the sky which aren’t rainbows, but are just as beautiful. Irridescent clouds are a rainbow effect in cloud usually quite near the sun. They are caused by the sunlight hitting water droplets at the right angle. There are a group of rainbow type effects called ice halos such as the parhelia and circumzenithal arc. You do need to take care when looking out for these things and shield your eyes from the sun. If you are taking photos with an SLR camera do not look through the view finder.

Sundog in cirrus cloud
Sundog in cirrus cloud | Source
Sundog closer up.
Sundog closer up. | Source


Sundogs, also known as parhelia, appear on sunny and even hot days with no rain in sight. They occur when sun rays hit ice crystals in cirrus cloud near the sun. The sundogs are about the same level in the sky as the sun, but the lower the sun is the nearer the sundogs will be to the sun. There is usually one on either side of the sun, but depending on the cloud you may only see one on one side.

They might have been named because they appear to follow the sun a bit like dogs. Alternatively, because appearing on either side of the fiery sun they reminded people of firedogs which are supports for a fire grate often made of wrought iron or brass.

Sun dogs are relatively common throughout the world, but tend to last for quite a short time and often go unnoticed. In the first eight months of 2012 I have seen sundogs in Lancashire on four occasions.

Upside Down Rainbows

Upside down rainbows are rare but they do occur. Sometimes called sun smiles they are officially known as circumzenital arcs. Like sun dogs they occur due to light refracting off ice crystals in wispy cirrus cloud above the sun. I haven’t seen one, but really hope to one day. A circumhorizon arc is a similar effect, but with a shallower curve seen in cirrus cloud below the sun when the sun is high in the sky. Because the sun needs to be high it is quite common in much of America, but rare in the UK. I shall have to be especially lucky to see one in Lancashire since we get a lot of rainy days.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Rainbow over BurnleyRainbow over the canal, BurnleyRainbow over chimney, Burnley
Rainbow over Burnley
Rainbow over Burnley | Source
Rainbow over the canal, Burnley
Rainbow over the canal, Burnley | Source
Rainbow over chimney, Burnley
Rainbow over chimney, Burnley | Source

Rainbow Mythology

Since rainbows are a natural phenomenon which will have been seen by the earliest humans, it is not surprising that they feature in the mythology and religions of many cultures.

In Greek myths, Iris, the daughter of an ocean nymph is the personification of the rainbow.

In the Christian bible, after the great flood, it is claimed that God made the rainbow as a sign that he would never destroy Earth by flood again.

In Norse mythology there is a rainbow bridge between where the realms where the Gods and humans live. Perhaps this was the inspiration for the 'Rainbow Bridge' poem habit in today's culture of saying that beloved pets pass on to Rainbow Bridge.

Many poets have written about rainbows. One of my favourite rainbow poems is 'Birth of Rainbow" where he describes seeing a cow licking her newborn calf whilst she's stood under the end of a rainbow. By chance I recently came across such a scene myself which added an extra element of wonder to the recent birth.


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    • poetryman6969 profile image

      poetryman6969 3 years ago

      Very informative. Nothing like a little refraction to remind one that the Almighty is still honoring the contract. Diffraction is a cool way to make rainbows as well.

    • profile image

      alyssa kennedy 4 years ago

      I LOVE DOUBLE RAINBOWS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!11

    • tiffany delite profile image

      tiffany delite 4 years ago from united states

      i think rainbows are awesome! thanks for this hub and the great pics! blessings!

    • BL Tween profile image

      BL Tween 4 years ago

      I like rainbows, thank you for this hub.

    • Nettlemere profile image

      Nettlemere 4 years ago from Burnley, Lancashire, UK

      Hello Vibesites, It's nice to know that you enjoy seeing rainbows too. Hopefully you'll see a sundog soon! Thank you for commenting.

    • vibesites profile image

      vibesites 4 years ago from United States

      I have yet to see a sundog or an iridescent cloud, I thought it's a rare phenomenon. Rainbows never fail to make me blissed-out, and I'm somewhat sad when they're gradually fading.

      Now I know more about rainbows, thanks to your hub. Voted up, interesting/awesome/beautiful.

    • Nettlemere profile image

      Nettlemere 4 years ago from Burnley, Lancashire, UK

      Pamela, thank you for sharing your beautiful rainbow cloud experience - you're right they do make memories extra special.

    • Pamela Kinnaird W profile image

      Pamela Kinnaird W 4 years ago from Maui and Arizona

      It is said that Hawaii has more rainbows per month and year than anywhere else in the world. I've never looked up any facts to find out if it's true. But many-a-morning I have seen double and triple rainbows while driving on Maui past Iao Needle Park.

      I enjoyed reading your hub and learning so many new facts. The iridescent cloud phenomenon you have explained clears up an experience I had 30 years ago. I was saying goodbye to two ladies I would never get to see again in my lifetime. I happened to look up at the sky as I hugged one of them and there was a postage-stamp sized cloud in a blue sky -- with no other clouds in sight. There was a rainbow -- at least it seemed to me -- there over that little tiny cloud. Now having learned of irridescent cloud, I am thinking it was probably only a small patch, not arced at all -- but oh what a special moment it made.

      Rainbows make memories. Voting up, useful, beautiful and sharing.

    • Nettlemere profile image

      Nettlemere 4 years ago from Burnley, Lancashire, UK

      Say Yes to Life - thank you for commenting, the rainbow you describe sounds amazing; I'd have loved to see it.

      Seafarer Mama - thank you so much for the facebook like - it's great to meet another rainbow seeker!

    • Seafarer Mama profile image

      Karen Szklany Gault 4 years ago from New England

      Beautiful hub! :0) Had to "Like" it on FB. Every time it rains I run out to look for a rainbow, and am lucky to catch quite a few. :0)

    • Say Yes To Life profile image

      Yoleen Lucas 4 years ago from Big Island of Hawaii

      Hawaii gets LOADS of rainbows! We get them nearly every day. The most spectacular rainbow I ever saw was high arc that shimmered; you could see the windblown raindrops shifting in it, and the colors vibrated and fluctuated.

    • profile image

      brittany 5 years ago

      i love rainbows

    • Easy Exercise profile image

      Kelly A Burnett 5 years ago from United States

      Five stars - truly a great article! I always feel blessed when I see a rainbow and now I know more about them. Didn't know they could exist in the desert - how often does the desert have rain?

      England and Seattle WA- do they have the most rainbows in the world because they are a wet climate?

    • Movie Master profile image

      Movie Master 5 years ago from United Kingdom

      What a fabulous, interesting and informative hub, brilliant thank you and voted up!

    • profile image

      molmin 5 years ago

      And there was me thinking that rainbows are a simply explained! Very interesting and I had no idea there was so many different types. I shall be watching out for the secondary rainbow and I love the idea of a smiling rainbow! Well done and voted up.

    • Nettlemere profile image

      Nettlemere 5 years ago from Burnley, Lancashire, UK

      Aviannovice and Mmargie thank you both for visiting and voting.

      I got quite into rainbow type phenomena this year when I discovered there were so many different types I hadn't heard of. I think school geography lessons missed out lots of interesting bits!

    • Mmargie1966 profile image

      Mmargie1966 5 years ago from Gainesville, GA

      I am quite fascinated! What an informative hub. I had no idea there was so much to learn about rainbows. Great job!

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 5 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Voted awesome and up. This gave a lot of info that I didn't know. It was presented well and in an interesting manner.

    • Nettlemere profile image

      Nettlemere 5 years ago from Burnley, Lancashire, UK

      taazakhbar - thank you for reading, I'm glad you enjoyed it.

      allie - you might find you suddenly start seeing different ones now, sundogs especially.

      bac2basics - I'd love to exchange a quantity of our rain for a week of sunny days in August. Not that I'm a sunseeker, but it would be nice to dry out!

      Thank you for reading and commenting Joyce. I really enjoyed putting it all together, because of having got so much pleasure from seeing rainbows and sundogs.

    • writer20 profile image

      Joyce Haragsim 5 years ago from Southern Nevada

      Great read this morning all about beautiful rainbows. I love your

      photo's. You must have worked hard putting all information together.

      Voted up, awesome and very interesting, Joyce.

    • bac2basics profile image

      Anne 5 years ago from Spain

      Hi Nettlemere. We could do with a good downpour here right this moment, and a lovely rainbow to go with it..send us a bit over from lancashire will you please !!

    • alliemacb profile image

      alliemacb 5 years ago from Scotland

      Wow, I love looking at rainbows but hadn't really thought about the different types before now. We get a lot of double rainbows so I particularly liked reading about those. Awesome hub!

    • taazakhabar profile image

      taazakhabar 5 years ago from New Delhi, India

      well researched and well written. Loved reading it