Part 2: Blue Skies

Here is part 2 of my 4 part series on the scattered blues. Check out part 1 here.

On a sunny day, we perceive blue blanketing the sky, but, in reality, the sky has no colour. When traveling towards us, sunlight first hits earth’s atmosphere. Earth’s atmosphere is primarily composed of nitrogen (78%) and oxygen (21%) with bits of dust, water vapour and some inert argon, among other things. Water vapour and dust are the physically biggest components of the atmosphere, and are relatively large compared to the wavelengths of light. When light hits the water vapour and dust, is reflected in different directions, but the light remains white. So why does the sky appear blue?

In 1810, Goethe gave this explanation: “If the darkness of infinite space is seen through atmospheric vapours illuminated by the daylight, the blue colour appears.” His theory said colour comes from something within the atmosphere during the light of day. About the same time a more scientific inquiry was being made into the nature of scattering light. John Tyndall showed in an 1869 lab experiment that the blue hues of the sky could be created when white light was scattered by tiny particles. A few years later in 1871, John William Strutt, also known as Lord Rayleigh, was the first to describe the actual mechanism that makes the sky appear blue was a result of the tiny gas molecules of the atmosphere instead of the larger dust and water vapour.

When light collides with a gas molecule the results are different than when light hits a relatively large dust particle. Gas molecules are tiny compared to the wavelengths of light – several thousand times smaller. When light strikes a molecule, that molecule absorbs a specific wavelength (or colour) of the light’s energy and later re-emits the same colour in all directions; a process called Rayleigh scattering. This type of scattering is an example of incoherent scattering. Lord Rayleigh discovered that molecules absorb energetic light (blues) at a much greater rate than less energetic light (reds).

Most of the longer wavelengths of light pass through our atmosphere unaffected, resulting in the full spectrum of sunlight with a higher ratio of blue wavelengths from the scattering. For this extra blue light to make the sky appear a brilliant blue, a dark background is required. Fortunately, beyond our atmosphere is the blackness of outer space, which makes an ideal dark background. The combined effect of the extra blue light and the black of outer space results in a sky that appears blue.

If you shift your gaze towards the horizon, the brilliant blues give way to paler colours and perhaps even white. The light reaching you from near the horizon passes through much more atmosphere, so the scattered blue light is scattered again and again, reducing its intensity. This is another consequence of Rayleigh scattering. Preferential scattering of blue light by our atmosphere occurs everywhere, not just above us. For example, light reflected from your hand to your eye is affected by this scattering, but the effect is so minuscule we can’t detect it. Over a longer distance, like to a range of distant mountains, there is enough atmosphere to superimpose a blueish haze on our view of the mountains.

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