Why is the sky blue?

It’s a very common question, and you’ve probably asked it at least once yourself, but do you have the answer?

To explain, let’s start with the source of the light: the Sun. The Sun emits a lot of energy – light – spanning the electromagnetic spectrum from X-rays to radio waves. Most of this is either visible light (44%) or infrared (48%) radiation. Much of the remaining 7% consists of ultraviolet light. Wait… only 7%? I know what you’re thinking. Even though it makes up only a small fraction of the Sun’s light, we most often hear about this type of light because it is so damaging to our skin.

The Sun emits all colors – wavelengths ­– of visible light, from short blue wavelengths (0.4 mm) to long red wavelengths (0.7 mm), but it emits more of some colors and less of others. If we plot the intensity, or amount of light, versus the wavelength, we end up with the figure shown below, called a spectrum. The familiar colors of visible light are shown as well for comparison with the wavelength. What do you notice? The Sun emits all the colors of visible light, but the color it emits most is green. But the Sun doesn’t look green! All those colors emitted by the Sun get blended together and the result is a Sun that appears white from outer space.


This light leaves the Sun and speeds along its 8.3-minute trip to the Earth, where it hits the atmosphere. The atmosphere is composed of different atoms and molecules, most of which are nitrogen (N­­2, 78.1%), oxygen (O2, 20.9%), and argon (Ar, 0.9%). The remaining 0.1% is made up of a mix of different trace gases like neon (Ne), helium (He), methane (CH4), carbon dioxide (CO2), and ozone (O3). There is also some water vapor in the air, about 1–4% at the Earth’s surface, as well as some dust.

When sunlight hits the atmosphere, it interacts with the particles in the air, and the way it interacts depends on the size of the particles. For large particles like water vapor or dust, all wavelengths of light reflect off the particles equally. The interaction of light with smaller particles, however, is much more dramatic. This interaction is called Rayleigh scattering. When light hits a particle, the particle absorbs the light and then releases it in a different direction. Rayleigh scattering depends strongly on the wavelength of light, which means that shorter wavelength, blue light is scattered much more than longer wavelength, red light. Blue light gets scattered in all directions, so it reaches your eyes from whichever part of the sky you view. Red, orange, and yellow light gets scattered less, so if you glance at the sky near the Sun (don’t look directly at the Sun!), that portion of the sky will look yellower.

Okay, so if the Sun emits more green light, why isn’t the sky green? It isn’t green for the same reason the Sun itself isn’t green: the colors that scatter the most create the blue color you see when they’re blended, or averaged, together.

And if shorter wavelengths are scattered more, why isn’t the sky purple? This is simply because there isn’t much purple light coming from the Sun. There is much more blue and green light making the average scattered light appear blue. But here’s an interesting thought. If the surface temperature of the Sun were about 1500 K hotter, we would have a purple sky!

Come back next week for a physical description of how rainbows form and why diamonds sparkle!

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