Have you ever noticed the gorgeous sky this week and wondered why its hue is blue? Well, it all boils down to some science involving physics and chemistry.
Sunlight passing through Earth’s atmosphere is scattered by airborne particles and molecules, particularly gas molecules. Shorter wavelengths of light scatter more easily than longer ones, hence making blue light more visible.
Sunlight scatters off air molecules as it travels through Earth’s atmosphere, producing what we perceive to be blue sky. Light hits molecules in the atmosphere and scatters in all directions – with shorter wavelengths such as blue and violet being more strongly scattered than longer wavelengths such as red; thus making blue light more noticeable to human eyes than other colors.
Rayleigh published a mathematical description of this phenomenon in 1871. His findings revealed that intensity of scattering is proportional to fourth power of wavelength, suggesting that blue light scatters more often than red.
On sunny days, sunlight that reaches your eye from above must travel through more atmosphere than at other times of the day, increasing Rayleigh Scattering and making the sky appear bluer than usual.
However, many factors can alter the intensity of scattering and thus change its hue: air density molecules in the atmosphere; angle at which sunlight enters atmosphere; presence of dust particles, pollutants, water vapor or clouds can all impact how much light is scattered from its path through atmosphere; density of air molecules can all play a part.
Assuming high levels of atmospheric dust or pollutant particles in the air, their effect can lead to a brownish-tinged sky, rather than its original blue shade. Furthermore, as the sun sinks lower during sunset and sunrise, light must travel through more atmospheric layers before reaching our eyes – meaning blue light may be stripped away by longer wavelengths, giving rise to sunsets often possessing reddish hues.
Light with an electric charge is more likely to be scattered by air molecules and atoms, thus disorienting us and leading us away from feeling balanced and centered. Furthermore, this can prevent birds that migrate across long distances from using polarized light as a compass when flying long distances.
Dust and Water Droplets
As sunlight passes through the atmosphere, it comes into contact with air molecules which scatter it across all directions. Nitrogen and oxygen molecules in particular preferentially scatter blue light over other colors – making blue appear brighter to our eyes when reaching our vision.
The color of the sky varies according to dust, pollution and water vapor levels. Furthermore, as you ascend higher into the atmosphere it can appear more or less blue due to fewer molecules being available to scatter light; as a result of which its intensity reduces and makes the sky seem paler and whiter than before.
Water droplets floating through the air generally show more affinity to cling together than to separate, acting like small magnets with greater force to attract each other. This phenomenon results from larger water droplets being attracted together than separated by light waves; making them easier to adhere together than push apart.
However, when water droplets come in contact with pollen, spores or dirt particles, these smaller particles tend to push them away with greater force than usual – creating the effect of clouds or smog, while decreasing how much blue light they reflect back out into space. This process is called photocatalysis.
Clouds and dust hazes appear white because their particles are much larger than wavelengths of light, scattering all wavelengths equally (Mie scattering). When these clouds move into regions that have not recently experienced rainstorms, they may appear blue; when sundown arrives on Mars a permanent haze of dust pollution gives off a butterscotch hue; in fact, Mars never really had blue skies due to more nitrogen and carbon present than our atmosphere thus rendering its lack of blue light more noticeable.
Though it may seem counterintuitive, the sky actually appears bluer on a sunny or clear day than on one that is cloudy or foggy due to blue wavelengths being closer to natural resonant frequencies of air molecules than red wavelengths are.
As sunlight travels through the atmosphere, molecules scatter in various ways which influence its color. One key factor is that shorter wavelengths (blue) are redirected more than longer ones (red); therefore, near ground, we see our skies appear blue during the daytime but red at night.
Air molecules contain small percentages of water in their makeup, but this differs significantly from the water particles found in clouds. Cloud particles consist of water vapor molecules or sometimes salt or ash from volcanoes – known as aerosols – while air can contain dust, pollen and other particulates which affect its color and affect its hue.
Sunlight passing through the atmosphere is scattered in various ways and we have come to associate certain colors with these various scattering processes. Blue hues are most frequently produced by Rayleigh Scattering which sends more short wavelength light directly into our eyes than longer wavelength light frequencies.
The other colors in the sky result from selective scattering of sunlight by air molecules and particulates, leading to sunsets that look orange or red due to wildfires or volcanic eruptions; smaller particles than usual usually scatter colors more strongly than blue light wavelengths do.
Temperature and pressure both have an impact on the color of the sky. Cold air has less water vapor present and thus becomes denser and more likely to form clouds, while warm air contains more – making it lighter, gaseous, or gas-filled in comparison. As one moves higher into the atmosphere there becomes more room between molecules as pressure decreases too – leading to an overall reduction of density of air molecules as you increase.
Eyes are sensitive to a narrow range of frequencies within the vast electromagnetic spectrum; this area of radiation known as visible light spectrum corresponds with specific wavelengths perceived as colors by our retinas.
As soon as we look upon a blue sky, our eyes send a signal of increased brightness back to our brains due to white blood cells passing through fine blood vessels lining retina at the back of eye. When staring into a clear blue sky for too long, you may observe small moving dots that resemble worms; these aren’t symptoms of illness but simply part of an unavoidable natural phenomenon called the blue field entoptic phenomenon.
Earth’s atmosphere is not uniformly dense; pockets of different densities scatter light. This effects shorter wavelengths such as blue more than longer ones such as red; this causes stars to appear slightly redder than they actually are and also causes the twinkling effect we observe when gazing upon stars due to air density refracting its light refraction.