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Understanding the Science of Rainbows

Updated on September 13, 2014

What is a rainbow?

Everyone loves a rainbow! Even the grumpiest person cannot fail to feel lifted when they see this magical splash of colors in the sky.

Rainbows are a meteorological and optical phenomenon and have inspired, mystified and awed people across the world for thousands of years. Even though we now know its scientific explanation, the rainbow never fails to lift a heart and cause people to pause in wonder.

This page looks at the scientific reasons for why a rainbow occurs, how a rainbow is formed and the various characteristics a rainbow can have.

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When will you see a rainbow?

For a rainbow to occur there needs to be three things:

1. You need the sun to be shining behind you.

2. There needs to be a rain cloud or moisture in the air in front of you.

3. The sun must be shining through the rain cloud at an anti solar point of 42 degrees. An anti solar point is where the shadow of your head is, directly away from the sun.

Look at this photo below....

Can you see the people sitting on the bench? They have the sun shining behind them. You can see there's rain in the cloud in front of them. The sunlight is shining through millions and millions of tiny water drops, and as it does this the light refracts and disperses to show a beautiful spectrum of colors. Read on to find out how and why this happens!

You will see a rainbow at an anti-solar point of 42 degrees

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The colors of the rainbow

Why do we always see the same colors in a rainbow in the same order?

Humans see light as white, but it is actually made up of many colors that we can't see because light moves so fast.

When the beam of sunlight passes through the water droplet it slows down and spreads out, separating each color that makes up white light into a spectrum of colors. This is called "dispersion". The colors of a rainbow are always seen in this order:

RED, ORANGE, YELLOW, GREEN, BLUE, INDIGO and VIOLET

There are other many other colors, but we can't see them through our human eyes - like infrared and ultraviolet!

Each color in light is measured in wavelengths - some travel on longer wavelengths than others. Red, for example, is on a longer wavelength than violet. Red bends and changes direction when it travels through the water droplet much less than violet does. The index of refraction is the measure of speed of the wavelengths of color. You will see the colors of the rainbow in this same particular order because of the index of refraction.

If you want to learn more about the mathematics of rainbows , read this excellent guide The Calculus of Rainbows

You can see how light is dispersed through a raindrop by experimenting with a glass prism....see this video

Light refracting through a prism

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Why Rainbows are an arc - understanding light refraction

As the light travels through the water drop and disperses, it also does something called refraction.

Refraction is what happens to the light when it hits the water drop, it changes speed and bends. You can see this happening in the photo here of the glass prism on the right, refraction is happening as the white light (left) bends and disperses through the droplet.

So the reason why rainbows are an arc is because of the bending of and dispersing of light through millions of water droplets.

A more in depth article about refraction can be found here: "Snell's Law of the Refraction of Light."

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The discovery of why rainbows happen

Rene Descartes (1596 - 1650) was a famous philosopher who came up with the modern theory for how rainbows occur in 1637. He was the first person to make the relation between round water drops and the interaction of refracting light. This is his sketch for how primary and secondary rainbows are formed.

A primary rainbow

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Primary and secondary rainbows and the anti solar point

Primary rainbows shows red as the color on the outside, leading through to violet on the inside. You will see a primary rainbow at an anti solar point of 42 degrees. An anti solar point is the shadow of your head, directly away from the sun. In the photo above you can see the primary rainbow very clearly.

Secondary rainbows occur when the water droplets in the primary rainbow reflect light twice. Because it is the reflection of the primary, the colors are reversed. The colors are not so clear in the secondary and it is generally fuzzier and flatter than the primary. This rainbow occurs at 51 degrees from your anti solar point. Take a look at the image below, this shows both primary and secondary rainbows clearly.

Double rainbows showing primary and secondary bows

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Characteristics of rainbows - Alexander's dark band

Alexander's Dark Band is the name for the dark sky between the primary and secondary rainbows you can see it really clearly in the photo above. It was named by Alexander of Aphrodisias, a Greek Philosopher who first noticed these optical phenomena in 200AD.

Alexander wrote commentaries on Aristotle's works and it was in writing a commentary to Aristotle's "Meteorology" book that he mentioned the dark sky between rainbows.

Primary bows light up the sky inside of the arc, the secondary rainbow is a reflection of the primary so it brightens up the sky on the outside of the arc. This makes the sky appear darker between the bands.

Can you see Alexander's dark band here?

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Supernumerary rainbows

A Supernumerary Rainbow is a selection of smaller multiple green, pink and purple colors in the inside of the main rainbow. The extra bands are created by the interference of light waves on the water drops. The colors are lighter than those in the primary rainbow, and can change color too.

The photo above shows the Supernumerary Rainbow in full, and the photo below is a close up of the extra bands.

You can sometimes see a supernumerary on the outside the secondary rainbow, but these bands are very faint.

A very good and detailed explanation of how these bands are formed can be found at www.atopics.co.uk

How many bands can you see in this supernumerary?

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Twin rainbows

Twin rainbows are joined together at the base, unlike double rainbows which are separate.

There is currently no agreed explanation for twin rainbows, there could be a variety of reasons why they occur. Some scientists believe that they may be caused by a mixture of ice crystals and water droplets. Or twin bows could because of non spherical water droplets, this makes the light refract slightly differently, resulting in a twin rainbow.

Another explanation is that the second bow is a reflection of the first, but this hasn't been concretely proved because there have been rainbows that have a reflection and a twin too!

Rainbows in dew and mist - and a rainbow experiment for kids!

This photo below shows a rainbow of crepuscular rays in sprinkler spray. A crepuscular ray is light that appears from a single point in the sky, and look like columns of light. The columns of light here are from the trees above and as they shine onto the water droplets from the sprinkler they make a rainbow.

A fun experiment is to make a rainbow with hose water spray! On a sunny day go outside and set up a hose to spray a fine mist, stand with your back to the sun and turn the water on. Remember that the anti solar point is the shadow of your head and that the angle for a rainbow is 42 degrees from this point. Move the hose slowly from the shadow of your head to what you perceive 42 degrees will be - you will then make a rainbow! The brightest rainbows are later in the day, so try this as late afternoon for the best results.

Rainbow in water spray

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Red rainbows

Red rainbows can be seen at sunset, the low sun lengthens the red and yellow wavelengths in light and scatters the shorter greens and blues.



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Moon bows

A moon bow is a very rare occurrence and you are lucky to see one! It is caused by the moon behind you, rather than the sun. It looks like something from a dream doesn't it?



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Fog bows

A Fog bow is formed the same way as a rainbow, but the water droplets are smaller in fog so you cannot see the colors. This ghostly arc is most commonly seen on mountains and in cold sea mists. This photo was taken on a hillside above San Francisco.



Ice halos

These amazing halos are made up of tiny ice crystals known as diamond dust. These ice crystals are found in cirrus clouds, which are very high up wispy clouds at about 3 -6 miles up in the sky. Each minuscule particle of diamond dust refracts the light at 22 degrees. Just like the raindrops act like prisms in dispersing the light, so do the ice crystals and a rainbow colored halo appears around either the sun or the moon. Halos are also known as glorioles or icebows and folklore says that when you see one, rain is on its way.

An ice halo made from diamond dust

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The circumhorizon arc

This stunning image below is a Circumhorizon Arc, nicknamed a "fire rainbow". But it is not a rainbow! The circumhorizon arc is created by a high sun, at about 58 degrees and is created by the "diamond dust" ice particles found in high level cirrus clouds. This optical phenomena is seen in mid latitude countries, so whilst it is very rare to see this in countries nearer to the Northern Hemisphere. Do you live in Los Angeles, Houston or Melbourne? If so then you can see this beautiful sight up to 6 times over the summer, if you live in Northern Europe then to see this would be very unusual indeed!

A circumhorizon arc, or fire rainbow

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Circumzenithal arc

A circumzenithal arc is also created by the tiny particles of diamond dust ice crystals and the sun. The ice crystals must be flat and six sided, the sun has to be angled at 32 degrees - with these conditions you can see why this is a rare occurrence! It is most commonly seen in colder climates and will often stay visible in the sky for up to 30 minutes.

A smiling sky - the circumzenithal arc

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Different parts of the world see different bows more often than others, have you seen any unusual rainbows? Vote below!

What Type of Rainbow Have You Seen?

See results

© 2010 LadyFlashman

Rainbows can be explained by science, but people find a lot of pleasure in seeing them. What do rainbows mean to you?

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    • MJ Martin profile image

      MJ Martin aka Ruby H Rose 3 years ago from Washington State

      Awesome rainbows and lessons. A symbol of colorful light to brighten our world with peace. Water rainbows, my favorite.

    • seodress profile image

      seodress 4 years ago

      Beautiful !!!

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      I love rainbows there so peaceful

    • Johanna Eisler profile image

      Johanna Eisler 4 years ago

      Every time I see a rainbow, it reminds me of the promise given at the time of the first rainbow...

      God said to Noah: "This is the sign of the covenant that I am giving between me and you and every living soul that is with you, for the generations to time indefinite. My rainbow I do give in the cloud, and it must serve as a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. And it shall occur that when I bring a cloud over the earth, then the rainbow will certainly appear in the cloud. And I shall certainly remember my covenant which is between me and you and every living soul among all flesh; and no more will the waters become a deluge to bring all flesh to ruin. And the rainbow must occur in the cloud, and I shall certainly see it to remember the covenant to time indefinite between God and every living soul upon all flesh that is upon the earth." (Genesis 9:12-16) :)

    • MBurgess profile image

      Maria Burgess 4 years ago from Las Vegas, Nevada

      Rainbows are a reminder that God is there for me and there is a blessing to be had if I just work out the challenge I am facing. Rainbows are beautiful and they make me very happy when they appear! They usually show up when I need that kind of a message. Great lens!

    • profile image

      dean_w 4 years ago

      What do rainbows symbolize to me? God's love and His promise to us.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Rainbows remind me of happiness, because whenever i see one, my spirits lift and I feel carefree.

    • profile image

      xtianfriborg13 4 years ago

      Fascinating! I love rainbows!!

    • profile image

      jenny-archer-9 4 years ago

      peace and awe,the wonder of childhood.

    • profile image

      FashionMommy 4 years ago

      it's always been a joy to see a rainbow. this just made my day. thanks for sharing!

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      What incredible photographs! I don't know that rainbows symbolize anything specific to me, but when I see one I always wonder at nature and the beauty we get to enjoy if we just take the time to do so.

    • fred69 profile image

      fred69 4 years ago

      Rainbows...the sun is back.

    • Tamara14 profile image

      Tamara Kajari 4 years ago from Zagreb, Croatia, Europe

      Too much rain in Croatia today. If only sun would interfere a little and make a nice big rainbow :)

    • jlshernandez profile image

      jlshernandez 4 years ago

      Whenever I see a rainbow, I feel blessings are coming my way.

    • irminia profile image

      irminia 4 years ago

      Absolutely comprehensive and fantastic lens! Even moonbows and everything ...

    • profile image

      RinchenChodron 4 years ago

      Enlightenment!

    • Celticep profile image

      Celticep 4 years ago

      To me rainbows are a symbol of good things to come

    • profile image

      TravelEase 4 years ago

      Glorious rainbows. Really enchanting.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      @anonymous: if you'd like to read my blog post or see m pic's please use the following in you search engine and hopefully you'll be able to find me ... "20120711_Coombe Abbey Photo Wander Walk" ... cheers, Gary

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Thanks for a super posting - Made a link on my blog as fits nicely with the end a photographic walk I did earlier in the year, Cheers again ...

    • profile image

      UKMarkWilliam 5 years ago

      This post is really awesome. This is excellent and informative. Thanks for this post.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      when we stand on a moon we dont see rainbow , why so ?

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I don't know that much about rainbow thanks for sharing

    • kindoak profile image

      kindoak 5 years ago

      Rainbows make me happy. Don't know why, just is that way. I like them even better than the northern lights we get here sometimes!

    • profile image

      sherioz 5 years ago

      What fabulous photos. I always try to capture a rainbow and never manage it. Great scientific explanation also.

    • tonybonura profile image

      Tony Bonura 5 years ago from Tickfaw, Louisiana

      Your poll only allows for one choice, and I have seen several different types of rainbows.

      TonyB

    • mariaamoroso profile image

      irenemaria 5 years ago from Sweden

      Such lovely lens! I saw a full rainbow yesterday and was in awe!

    • radhanathswamifan profile image

      radhanathswamifan 5 years ago

      A ray of hope:)

    • SheilaMilne profile image

      SheilaMilne 5 years ago from Kent, UK

      I was brought in Ireland up on the "pot of gold" legend. I still look for it. :) We've had several wonderful secondary rainbows over us recently so this has been a very timely as well as fascinating read.

    • RonandKaren profile image

      RonandKaren 5 years ago

      I always wondered how a rainbow is formed so thanx for letting me know! I'll be sure to share it with little ones around me. :) Great photos too.

    • irminia profile image

      irminia 5 years ago

      It is simply uplifting to see a rainbow, I enjoy this very much. I had no idea there are so many phenomena related to rainbows. thank you.

    • BillyPilgrim LM profile image

      BillyPilgrim LM 5 years ago

      Very nice. Still searching for that pot of gold, tho...x

    • LiteraryMind profile image

      Ellen Gregory 5 years ago from Connecticut, USA

      It's just so rare to see one after the rain, that it's a special treat. It's a splotch of different colors across the sky

    • captainj88 profile image

      Leah J. Hileman 5 years ago from East Berlin, PA, USA

      That God will never flood the earth again. And that light refraction is a really cool phenomenon.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      You have some unusual rainbow pictures here. Rainbows for me are dreams come true.

    • Doreen Katzaman profile image

      Doreen Katzaman 5 years ago

      I am always in awe of rainbows! I really enjoyed your lens. Beautiful and informative.

    • jmchaconne profile image

      jmchaconne 5 years ago

      Rainbows are awesome, thank you for a wonderful lens. I learned somethings I'd not known about them.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Very interesting. I love rainbows. Whenever it is raining in the afternoon and the sun pops out, I run to the back yard to see if there is one.

    • Dusty2 LM profile image

      Dusty2 LM 5 years ago

      Dew and mist bows have seen. Red, fog and moon bows have not. What interesting photos, especially the moon bow. Thank you for sharing this lens and information about rainbows. Always fascinated with rainbows and still looking for the "Pot O' Gold".

    • gregorymbrooks profile image

      gregorymbrooks 5 years ago

      I remember learning about this in calculus, and then again in physics. What a great lens!

    • profile image

      DMVAgent 5 years ago

      Very cool rainbow, i really like it. Rainbow of possibilities here, rainbow is life!

    • Jillynn profile image

      Jillynn 5 years ago

      Spirit and beauty and joy and refreshment, at a minimum. Lovely lens.

    • profile image

      JamesDWilson 5 years ago

      Beautiful natural phenomena. Understanding makes them more beautiful, not less.

    • writerkath profile image

      writerkath 5 years ago

      Hope, faith... Also, just JOY! I've seen double rainbows, and also parahelions (at South Pole ages ago). (I think that's what it was called. We called them Sun Dogs)

    • profile image

      anooptu 5 years ago

      i like rainbow from my childhood.

      7 colors making wonder on the sky.

      hats off!

      thanks for sharing science behind rainbow !

    • profile image

      lizholy 5 years ago

      Love the rainbow in Sprinker Spring... thanks for the post, I didn't even know that there were many different kinds of rainbows. Blessings!

    • profile image

      Tigerstarr830 5 years ago

      We were in New Mexico on vacation and a perfect double rainbow in it's entirety

      formed in a shopkeeper's front yard!!!! Very unusual and I felt blessed to see it.

    • Lynne-Modranski profile image

      Lynne Modranski 5 years ago from Ohio

      My daughters and I had a rainbow "follow" us down the road while driving one day. We saw it from a distance, and then when we reached it, it stayed about one foot ahead of our front bumper for about a mile. I was in awe (still am, just thinking about it)

      Thanks for a great lens!

    • srsddn lm profile image

      srsddn lm 5 years ago

      Rainbows have always attracted me. But the information about rainbows in the lens will make rainbows a more thrilling experience after reading this lens.

    • OrlandoTipster profile image

      OrlandoTipster 5 years ago

      I think rainbows are god's way of smiling on those who happen to catch sightof one

    • Elsie Hagley profile image

      Elsie Hagley 5 years ago from New Zealand

      I love rainbows. You have done a great job with this lens of rainbow science.

      Your photos are beautiful, enjoyed it very much. Blessed.

    • FantasticVoyages profile image

      Fantastic Voyages 5 years ago from Texas

      Gosh, I didn't realize there were so many kinds of rainbows. So informative, and love the photos. Thanks for sharing!

    • Gayle Dowell profile image

      Gayle Dowell 5 years ago from Kansas

      I love the sight of a rainbow after a storm. To me it symbolizes that there is hope after hardship. Blessed~

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Awesome lens. Rainbows are such a beautiful sight to behold. Thanks for sharing.

    • casquid profile image

      casquid 5 years ago

      An appearance of a rainbow makes my day, too! This was the right article to luck up on today! Thanks!!

    • Tia Novak profile image

      Tia Novak 5 years ago

      I feel very lucky when I see a rainbow.

    • Melissa Miotke profile image

      Melissa Miotke 5 years ago from Arizona

      I like to think they're my Mom smiling down on me. I loved this lens and your beautiful pictures!

    • Diva2Mom profile image

      Diva2Mom 5 years ago

      Like a smile from Heaven, meant just for me, to cheer me up. Very educational lense, never knew so many types.

    • WriterJanis2 profile image

      WriterJanis2 5 years ago

      Incredible images and loads of info. Blessed!

    • Zebedee32 profile image

      Zebedee32 5 years ago

      Some lovely pictures and things I did not know about. Thanks for sharing.

    • Craftypicks profile image

      Lori Green 5 years ago from Las Vegas

      I love seeing Rainbows. I have a great picture of one over Lousiana right after Katrina.

    • profile image

      johnny6toes 5 years ago

      Beautiful topic. Rainbows are just one of those things that makes you step back in awe and appreciate everything our natural world is capable of.

    • indigoj profile image

      Indigo Janson 5 years ago from UK

      I came back to enjoy more beautiful rainbows.... fog bows and moon bows just make me say wow but all rainbows are magical.

    • KathyMcGraw2 profile image

      Kathy McGraw 5 years ago from California

      I so remember this page, and that Circumhorizon Arc, which American Indians call by a different name. I saw one in the desert, and one in the San Diego area of CA...they are beautiful, and indeed rare. This is a great resource for homeschool science lessons as well as just a beautiful page for all of us ;)

    • randomthings lm profile image

      randomthings lm 5 years ago

      Rainbows are so cool, especially when one part of the sky is dramatically stormy and the other part is sunny. What an amazing creation of nature! Very good explanation here, thanks!

    • waldenthreenet profile image

      waldenthreenet 5 years ago

      Valuable topic. Rainbows are important from both arts and science perspectives and has been so in history. Conversations for deeper understanding most welcome. Thanks.

    • makemoneyonline5 profile image

      makemoneyonline5 5 years ago

      I love rainbows. I don't think anyone tires of seeing a beautiful rainbow. Wonderful lens, thank you for sharing.

    • avigarret profile image

      avigarret 5 years ago

      I never knew learning about the science behind this could be so entertaining, thank you for sharing this information.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      THE SUN OR SURYA IS THE GOD OF OUR UNIVERSE HE IS THE CREATOR FOR ALL LIVINGS IN THE EARTH.THE SINGLE RAY THAT CONTAINS COLOURS TO ALL THE OTHER UNKNOWN THINGS TO LIVES OF EARTH LIVINGS.

    • LynetteBell profile image

      LynetteBell 5 years ago from Christchurch, New Zealand

      I love rainbows:)

    • Steph Tietjen profile image

      Stephanie Tietjen 5 years ago from Albuquerque, New Mexico

      You have a great way of explaining the science. Thanks

    • mistyblue75605 lm profile image

      mistyblue75605 lm 5 years ago

      nicely done! Thanks for sharing the info :)P

    • rob-hemphill profile image

      Rob Hemphill 5 years ago from Ireland

      Rainbows are colorful and beautiful, and make me rush for my camera. With our climate in Ireland, we see rather a lot of them!

    • profile image

      julieannbrady 5 years ago

      Rainbows are colorful works of art ... like a colorful prism up in the sky!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I love rainbows, a marvelous creation of nature.

    • profile image

      pinto2011 5 years ago

      It is always enthralling to see a rainbow and carried away with the mythical stories but to know the truth is the essence of life and you have really carry forwarded the whole truth in the nicest way.

    • Dmarieinspires profile image

      Dana Marie 5 years ago from St. Peters, MO

      God given beauty for the world to see and enjoy!

    • MarkHansen profile image

      MarkHansen 5 years ago

      One of the most beautiful phenomenas.

    • mihgasper profile image

      Miha Gasper 5 years ago from Ljubljana, Slovenia, EU

      Knowing all the facts behind rainbows makes them even more beautiful.

    • profile image

      reasonablerobby 5 years ago

      Brilliant. One of my favourite books in Unweaving The Rainbow by Richard Dawkins who takes issue with the romantic poets who said science was destroying the romanticism of rainbows by explaining their physics.

    • profile image

      jimmyworldstar 5 years ago

      Rainbows are just beautiful works of nature. I haven't seen any fogbows but they still look aesthetically pleasing.

    • profile image

      cmadden 5 years ago

      There is beauty in the science which parallels the beauty of the natural phenomenon it explains. Very nice lens.

    • franstan lm profile image

      franstan lm 6 years ago

      I love rainbows.

    • profile image

      GrinningFool 6 years ago

      Love your favorite rainbow photo!

    • profile image

      JoshK47 6 years ago

      What a wonderful lens - and while not rainbows, that circumhorizon arc looks *amazing*. I'd make a double rainbow joke here, but I feel it's been played out. Though I suppose that still counts as a reference. lol

    • linhah lm profile image

      Linda Hahn 6 years ago from California

      Magic in physical form.

    • BeaGabrielle1 profile image

      BeaGabrielle1 6 years ago

      I love rainbows, and their biblical significance. But I never knew there were so many different types of rainbows!

    • sushilkin lm profile image

      sushilkin lm 6 years ago

      Its nice to read your informative knowledge. Thanks

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Rainbows are an awesome sight - definite beauty of nature- thanks so much for bringing us such great information and wonderful updates !!! You made my day - its raining in MIchigan today !!!

    • Blackspaniel1 profile image

      Blackspaniel1 6 years ago

      Nice one. I also have one called rainbows explained.

    • sheriangell profile image

      sheriangell 6 years ago

      Well this certainly cheered me up on a rainy Saturday! Thanks!

    • pheonix76 profile image

      pheonix76 6 years ago from WNY

      Lovely page, I am so happy I found it!! You have selected some beautiful photos, thank you for teaching us about rainbows. Cheers.

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      anonymous 6 years ago

      I love rainbows now more than ever! Amazing, wonderful, interesting, informative, beautiful and so very well done!

    • WebIsFun profile image

      WebIsFun 6 years ago

      Rainbows for me, mean that something wonderful is about to happen

    • puerdycat lm profile image

      puerdycat lm 6 years ago

      Thanks! Wonderful! Love multiple rainbows. And I remember moonbow over Tantalus in Hawaii!

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      jgelien 6 years ago

      To me rainbows are a symbol of hope. You have some gorgeous pictures here

      and I enjoyed reading all the information about the different types of rainbows.

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      anonymous 6 years ago

      WOW! These rainbows are awesome! Gorgeous!

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      kt_glasses 7 years ago

      I wish all the science teachers can teach in such a clear and fun way! Great lens!

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      Be-ing

      OneLove

      Favorite colour: rainbow

      XxxxX

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      Hello

      FAB article. I've never been fascinated by raimbows however (is there something I'm missing?) I've always been more of a sunrise person.