The sky has always fascinated people. It is vast, epic, and sometimes seems otherworldly. Many religious people believe the heavens are in the sky or above it. But another aspect of the sky that has puzzled people over eons is its color. People often ask, “why is the sky blue?” In fact, it is one of the most frequently searched questions on Google. In order to address this question properly, this essay will give an in-depth answer to this age-old inquiry.
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What is interesting is that the light from the sun appears to be white when you catch a glimpse of it. However, this is not quite the fact. The light from the sun carries a variety of colors, which makes up a spectrum of colors. However, this white light of the sun is already separated when something reflects it, bends it, or scatters it. In fact, white light travels in a straight line, and when this light separates, it becomes wavy. These waves show up in different colors, with red being the least wavy, and blue being the most wavy.
What does all this have to do with the color of the sky? Well, according to NASA, “Sunlight reaches Earth’s atmosphere and is scattered in all directions by all the gases and particles in the air. Blue light is scattered in all directions by the tiny molecules of air in Earth’s atmosphere. Blue is scattered more than other colors because it travels as shorter, smaller waves” (“Why Is the Sky Blue?”). This explains why we see the sky as blue most of the time, though you can see it is almost an optical illusion.
However, there are some nuances to this perception. As NASA states, “Closer to the horizon, the sky fades to a lighter blue or white. The sunlight reaching us from low in the sky has passed through even more air than the sunlight reaching us from overhead. As the sunlight has passed through all this air, the air molecules have scattered and rescattered the blue light many times in many directions” (“Why Is the Sky Blue?”). So, as you approach a horizon, the truth of the white light becomes more apparent.
And what about sunsets? There are a variety of reasons why sunset is a time of myriad colors. According to the University of California, “When the air is clear the sunset will appear yellow, because the light from the sun has passed a long distance through air and some of the blue light has been scattered away. If the air is polluted with small particles, natural or otherwise, the sunset will be more red. Sunsets over the sea may also be orange, due to salt particles in the air, which are effective Tyndall scatterers” (ucr.edu). In addition, the sky around the sun is viewed as red, plus the light that directly emits from the sun. This is due to the fact that light scatters best through small angles, and blue light is easier to spread long distances,
Other parts of the sky, such as clouds and dust, are seen as white for specific reasons as well. As the University of California puts it, “Clouds and dust haze appear white because they consist of particles larger than the wavelengths of light, which scatter all wavelengths equally” (Mie scattering) (ucr.edu). So, some things in nature refer back to the original color of light through the phenomenon of weight.
There are some instances where blue and red springs up in other natural phenomena other than the sky itself. As stated by the University of California, “Aerosols of terpenes from the vegetation react with ozone in the atmosphere to form small particles about 200 nm across, and these particles scatter the blue light. A forest fire or volcanic eruption may occasionally fill the atmosphere with fine particles of 500–800 nm across, being the right size to scatter red light. This gives the opposite to the usual Tyndall effect, and may cause the moon to have a blue tinge since the red light has been scattered out” (ucr.edu). These instances are more rare but happen enough to make it a regular occurrence measured by science.
Though the question “why is the sky blue?” is a seemingly childlike inquiry, it is not so easy to explain to a child. Basically, the sky is blue due to the white light (which actually is a spectrum of colors) of the sun being separated upon hitting Earth’s atmosphere, and blue light happens to spread much better than other colors of light due to its waviness. The sky changes color near the horizon, at sunset, in clouds, and other places due to the scattering of colors by material or angle.
“Why Is the Sky Blue?” NASA, spaceplace.nasa.gov/blue-sky/en/.
“Why Is the Sky Blue?” My Favorite Numbers, math.ucr.edu/home/baez/physics/General/BlueSky/blue_sky.html.
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