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From Myth to Reality: Photos Prove Triple Rainbows Exist

Single rainbows are inspiring, double rainbows are rare, but tertiary rainbows have been elusive until a meteorologist provided guidelines that showed how to find them

Rainbow 1

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(a) Original image of a third-order (tertiary) rainbow. The image was taken May 15, 2011, in Kampfelbach, Germany and is the first-ever picture of a tertiary rainbow. Two reference positions (A and B) for image orientation are indicated. (b) Processed version of image (a) after contrast expansion and unsharp masking, showing a rainbow-like pattern next to the image center, marked by the arrows. Credit: Michael Grossmann/Applied Optics.

Rainbow 2

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The third-order (tertiary) rainbow (left), accompanied by the fourth-order (quaternary) rainbow (right). They appear on the sunward side of the sky, at approximately 40° and 45°, respectively, from the Sun. This is the first picture ever of a quaternary rainbow in nature and the second picture ever of a tertiary rainbow. Credit: Michael Theusner/Applied Optics.

WASHINGTON, Oct. 5—Few people have ever claimed to see three rainbows arcing through the sky at once. In fact, scientific reports of these phenomena, called tertiary rainbows, were so rare—only five in 250 years—that until now many scientists believed sightings were as fanciful as Leprechaun’s gold at a rainbow's end.  These legendary optical rarities, caused by three reflections of each light ray within a raindrop, have finally been confirmed, thanks to photographic perseverance and a new meteorological model that provides the scientific underpinnings to find them. The work is described in a series of papers in a special issue published this week in the Optical Society’s (OSA) journal Applied Optics.

In addition to the confirmed photo of a tertiary rainbow, the optical treasure hunt went one step further, as revealed in another photo that shows the shimmering trace of a fourth (quaternary) rainbow.

Raymond Lee, a professor of meteorology at the U.S. Naval Academy, did not snap those pictures, but he did make them possible. One year ago, Lee predicted how tertiary rainbows might appear and challenged rainbow chasers to find them.

Although staggeringly rare, tertiary and quaternary rainbows are natural products of the combination of refraction, dispersion, and reflection inside raindrops. These are the same processes that create all rainbows, yet they are taken to their most extreme to produce these higher order variants. Refraction is when sunlight bends as it moves from air into water and vice versa. (Such bending makes oars look bent when partially submerged.) Water droplets bend each of the colors in sunlight by a slightly different angle. This is called dispersion, and it separates the colors to create a rainbow.

Most of that multicolored light passes through the other side of the raindrop, but some is reflected. The raindrop's spherical curves concentrate those reflections at 138 degrees from the Sun. This concentrated light is bright enough to create a visible primary rainbow.

A double rainbow occurs because not all that light exits the raindrop. Some is reflected back into the raindrop and goes through the whole process again. Although this light is dimmer, sometimes it is bright enough to produce a secondary rainbow just outside the first.

A third series of reflections creates a tertiary rainbow. It is even dimmer than the secondary rainbow, and much harder to find because instead of forming away from the Sun, a tertiary rainbow forms around the Sun. To see it, observers have to look into the Sun's glare.

This may be why only five scientifically knowledgeable observers had described tertiary rainbows during the past 250 years.

Lee reviewed each description. He eliminated one questionable account and found common elements in the others. All described tertiary rainbows that appeared for a few seconds against a dark background of clouds about 40 degrees from a brightly shining sun.

Along with colleague Philip Laven, Lee used a mathematical model to predict what conditions might produce visible tertiaries. First, they needed dark thunderclouds and either a heavy downpour or a rainstorm with nearly uniformly sized droplets. Under these conditions, if the Sun broke through the clouds, it could project a tertiary rainbow against the dark clouds nearby. The contrasting colors would make the dim tertiary visible.

When Lee presented his findings at last year's International Conference on Atmospheric Optics, it sparked heated discussion. Some scientists insisted that past descriptions were wrong and that tertiaries were too dim to see in the Sun's glare.

One attendee, Elmar Schmidt, an astronomer at Germany's SRH University of Applied Sciences in Heidelberg and a rainbow chaser, took the guidelines as a challenge. He alerted likeminded amateurs. Since then, Michael Grossmann and Michael Theusner have snapped photos of tertiary rainbows. One photo even shows a quaternary rainbow, and both images, which underwent only minimal image processing to improve the contrast under these challenging photographic conditions, appear in the same Applied Optics special issue as Lee and Laven's paper.

The day Grossmann photographed the tertiary rainbow, he first recalled seeing a double rainbow. When the rain intensified, he knew he had to turn toward the Sun. "It is really exaggerated to say that I saw it, but there seemed to be something," he says. The pictures he snapped in the rain were the first to show a tertiary rainbow.

Of the noteworthy discovery, "it was as exciting as finding a new species," Lee says.

Papers:

Visibility of natural tertiary rainbows, Raymond L. Lee, Jr. and Philip Laven, Applied Optics, Vol. 50, Issue 28, pp. F152-F161 (2011) This research received support from National Science Foundation grants AGS-0914535 and AGS-0540896.

Photographic evidence for the third-order rainbow, Michael Grossmann, Elmar Schmidt, and Alexander Haussmann, Applied Optics, Vol. 50, Issue 28, pp. F134-F141 (2011)   

Photographic observation of a natural fourth-order rainbow, Michael Theusner, Applied Optics, Vol. 50, Issue 28, pp. F129-F133 (2011)

The papers published above are part of the Applied Optics special issue on Light and Color in the Open Air and are based on presentations given at the "Light and Color in Nature" conference held in June 2010 at St. Mary’s College in Maryland.

EDITOR’S NOTE: High-resolution images of the tertiary and quaternary rainbows and copies of the papers are available to members of the media upon request.  Please contact Angela Stark, astark@osa.org.

About Applied Optics

Applied Optics is the Optical Society’s most widely read journal. Published three times each month, the journal reports significant optics applications in areas such as optical testing and instrumentation, medical optics, holography,  optical neural networks, LIDAR and remote sensing, laser materials processing, and more. Each issue of Applied Optics contains content from three divisions of editorial scope: Optical Technology; Information Processing; and Lasers, Photonics, and Environmental Optics. For more information, visit www.OpticsInfoBase.org/AO.

About OSA

Uniting more than 130,000 professionals from 175 countries, the Optical Society (OSA) brings together the global optics community through its programs and initiatives. Since 1916 OSA has worked to advance the common interests of the field, providing educational resources to the scientists, engineers and business leaders who work in the field by promoting the science of light and the advanced technologies made possible by optics and photonics. OSA publications, events, technical groups and programs foster optics knowledge and scientific collaboration among all those with an interest in optics and photonics. For more information, visit www.osa.org.

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